Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It was time for Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters to play and for the Wolverines' offense to move forward. Peters replaced starter John O'Korn in the game against Rutgers, leading the offense on four scoring drives, and gave a glimpse of what Michigan is hoping can be the future of its offense.
It took seven games for Peters to see meaningful action, but he made the most of the opportunity and showed that he is ready to take the reins.
“You always look at it as a process ... for a couple weeks now we felt that he was ready and it’s time,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Like a bird leaving the nest, kids leaving the house and going off on their own. It was time.”
Harbaugh said it was always the plan, going into that game, to play Peters, but O’Korn left him little choice after throwing an interception and stalling out multiple drives through the first and second quarters. What was supposed to be a game to help get the offense back on track was actually a game that helped get the offense a new start.
O’Korn started his season out on a promising foot when he replaced injured Wilton Speight against Purdue, going 18-for-26 for 270 yards and a touchdown, but he never picked up on his start and stalled from there. The clamoring for Peters grew louder and louder, and when he went in the game in the second quarter, the Michigan crowd let out the loudest cheer of the day, as if to exhale a sigh of relief.
And relief was provided when Peters dropped back and completed a 15-yard pass to tight end Tyrone Wheatley Jr. for a first down, eventually completing his first three passes for a total of 37 yards. The drive was capped off by a touchdown run from Karan Higdon to put Michigan up 14-7 and they never looked back from there.
“He did better than everybody thought, too, yeah,” Harbaugh said. “Every drive he was moving the team. Touchdown on the two-minute drill, 80-yard drive, or 75-yard drive to start his first series in football, starting quarterback in college. I would think that would be very good for his confidence and build on it; we look to build on that.”
Peters has been building toward this moment since training camp, when Harbaugh noted a change in Peters’ communication and volume of his voice. Commanding the huddle and being loud was something Harbaugh had preached to Peters that needed to get better, even saying in a radio interview on 97.1 The Ticket that Peters had gone to some professionals on campus to work on his voice.
That aspect improved and his teammates started to take notice of the changes in the former ESPN 300 quarterback.
“From spring ball to now, two completely different quarterbacks,” defensive end Rashan Gary said of Peters. “You see it in practice, he’s talking more, checking down more. It’s crazy to see, not seeing too much in spring ball to now and you’re checking things down, making good passes. It’s unbelievable.”
Peters is going to have to talk a whole lot more as it looks like he’s going to play a whole lot more. It seems likely Peters will be the starter going forward, beginning this week against Minnesota.
The performance was against Rutgers, a defense that ranks 69 in total defense, but Peters seemed to spark the offense, giving it the life it needed. It was only one game, but it gave some hope that this season isn’t over and that -- if Peters can continue to build on his start -- Harbaugh might have found his quarterback of the future.
He hasn’t proven it yet, though, and while there were flashes of what Harbaugh had hoped to see out of his quarterback, there is still work to be done. Harbaugh isn’t 100 percent confident to say that Peters is the starting quarterback outright, but another good performance this weekend and Peters can cement his spot as the first-string quarterback for this season and beyond.
“I just showed what I had today and it’s in the hand of the coaches,” Peters said. “I’d love to be the starting QB, that’s always been my goal since I got here, but it’s in the hand of the coaches. I know they’ll do whatever they feel is right for the team.”
During a stretch of three drives that spanned the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, while sheets of rain soaked the Big House, the Wolverines' offensive staff dialed up 11 passes on 14 plays for a second-string quarterback making his second start in Ann Arbor. John O'Korn completed one of them for a first down. Three of them were intercepted. And with that, the Spartans had the space to hold on and upset No. 7 Michigan 14-10, Michigan State's eighth win over Michigan in a decade.
"Yeah, you can criticize that," coach Jim Harbaugh said of the passes. "We were trying to run the ball. We were trying to put drives together. We really were."
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio continues to pull rabbits out of his hat in East Lansing. His Spartans are now an improbable 4-1 -- the same as the Wolverines -- and have seemingly put the on-field disaster of the 2016 season behind them. Dantonio said earlier this week that his goal when he took over at Michigan State was to make this game into a rivalry again. "I think it's a rivalry. We'll leave it at that," he said, and he proceeded to knock off an undefeated Michigan team on the road for the second time in the past three years.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh, Michigan's chosen son, has lost four games in his five tries against one of his alma mater's biggest rivals.
Michigan State's offense didn't pick up a first down for the first 27 minutes of the second half. It didn't really need one. Brian Lewerke threw for one touchdown and ran for another in the first two quarters of a game that was heated, physical and full of mistakes on both sides.
The Wolverines' sins, five turnovers, turned out to be more mortal. Senior running back Ty Isaac fumbled near midfield in the first quarter. Michigan State converted the good field position into its first points of the game. Lewerke showed his athleticism and guts on the touchdown play, diving into a crowd of Michigan defenders at the goal line.
He later orchestrated a nine-play march that ended with a well-designed screen play to running back Madre London for the Spartans' second score of the game. London later broke a 50-yard run that put Michigan State in position to push the Wolverines from their heels to their backsides before halftime. His run would prove to be the Spartans' last first down before their final drive of the game. Michigan's defense held Lewerke & Co. to 66 total yards in the second half but couldn't carry quite enough water to salvage a victory.
The defense did provide Michigan's biggest second-half spark. After a botched punt return attempt -- of all things in this series -- the Wolverines' defense narrowly missed picking up a safety on back-to-back plays. It did force Jake Hartbarger to punt with his earhole in the Michigan student section. O'Korn & Co. converted good field position into a quick score, their only touchdown of the game.
O’Korn finished the game 16-of-35 passing for 198 yards and three interceptions. His two starts since transferring to Michigan in 2015 have come during a snow-blanketed game last November and a rain-soaked one this weekend. He showed the ability to escape a pass rush and create momentum at times against the Spartans but also appeared to lose his poise during that turnover deluge early in the final quarter.
It appears that if Michigan is going to resurrect its hopes to bring some type of a championship to Ann Arbor in Harbaugh's third year, O'Korn will be the quarterback to guide the Wolverines through at least the majority of that stretch. Michigan's defense will need to provide plenty of help, and it can. The quarterback also will need some help from the men calling his plays.
John O'Korn is down to his last shot as a college quarterback, and oddly enough, this time it feels like the pressure is off.
O'Korn will lead No. 7 Michigan this weekend against Michigan State and, it appears, for at least a couple of weekends after that as Wilton Speight recovers from an injury. O'Korn has the luxury of having the nation's most statistically stifling defense on his side. He has the benefit of taking over an offense that has been underwhelming when it comes to finishing drives through the first third of the season. His description of a job well done is as simple as it's been through four-plus eventful years of college football: win games.
When it became clear that O'Korn would take the reins at Michigan for the time being, his father, a former high school head coach in central Pennsylvania, had a question for him.
"What's your juice? What's your long-term juice?" he asked. In other words, what's going to keep you focused and motivated during a prolonged stretch on the field?
O'Korn's juice when he stepped in for Speight to finish the Wolverines' last win against Purdue with 270 passing yards was abundantly clear to anyone who saw him play. He followed up several big plays and touchdown drives by spinning toward the Purdue sideline, locating co-offensive coordinator Tony Levine and hollering. After the game, he said head coach Jim Harbaugh had to calm him down a couple of times and that beating his old coach was a gratifying, redemptive moment even if he didn't get another shot to play this season.
Levine and O'Korn met at Houston in 2013. O'Korn threw for more than 3,000 yards and won his league's rookie of the year award while leading the Cougars to an 8-5 record. His numbers deteriorated as a sophomore as Levine worked future starter Greg Ward into the lineup more often. Within a couple of months, O'Korn went from watch lists for national postseason awards to a seat on the bench. It shattered his confidence and later made him feel that the blame for the end of Levine's tenure in Houston was wrongly put on his shoulders.
"I felt at times like I was the scapegoat at Houston for a lot of things that were going on within the program," he said this summer. "That will shake an 18-year-old kid, you know?"
O'Korn transferred to Michigan for a second chance and sat out a year while learning from his old friend and fellow St. Thomas Aquinas graduate Jake Rudock before hitting his next setback. O'Korn lost a battle for the starting job he was expected to win in 2016. Confidence was still an issue. So was the idea that he had to prove he was good, rather than proving he could run a good offense.
The next chance came last November when Speight was sidelined with a shoulder injury. His "juice" that day was what he saw as his "Cardale Jones moment." He had watched the Ohio State quarterback come off the bench the previous year and show off a big arm en route to a national title. O'Korn was now in the middle of a team clinging to College Football Playoff hopes and wanted to make a big splash.
The pressure hurt him. The weather didn't help either on a snowy day in Ann Arbor. He broke one long, momentum-shifting run in the second half that helped Michigan beat Indiana, but to most his performance through the air served as a reminder of why Speight won the job in training camp.
"I would've liked to get a few throws back from that game," O'Korn said with almost a full year of hindsight. "I think maybe I pressed a little too much, tried to make the big play a little too much instead of just letting things come to me."
It didn't seem then that he'd get another shot at being remembered as more of the quarterback who showed great promise as a freshman than the guy who eventually lost his job the following year. But he managed to hang on to his No. 2 spot on the depth chart this summer and now has one more opening to prove himself.
There are plenty of motivational narratives for O'Korn in the coming weeks -- plenty of ways that he can put himself in the protagonist role of a comeback story. Michigan State is a heated rival. After that he gets another shot at Indiana, the team that robbed him of his Cardale Jones moment. Then comes a trip to Penn State, a half-hour down the road from his childhood home. The O'Korns grew up cheering for the Nittany Lions, and John was considering playing there before Penn State's former staff decided to go with Christian Hackenberg in that recruiting class.
Those storylines would have filled O'Korn's head and heaped pressure on him in past years. They wormed their way into his thinking against Purdue as well. Now he has to show that he can move beyond that. With time and maturation behind him -- and the bonus of a bit of breathing room in front of him thanks to Speight's extended time on the sideline -- he has a chance to keep his focus elsewhere. His job is simple: win games.
This time it's not about him. If this time is going to be different, that'll have to be his juice.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke was sitting on a couch in his buddy’s basement for what he considers one of his favorite memories as a Spartan.
Lewerke was a true freshman waiting his turn in 2015 when Michigan State last made the 65-mile drive to Ann Arbor to play Michigan. He wasn’t on the travel list. So the West Coast native found a friend with a big projector screen in East Lansing and joined a couple dozen others for his introduction to the hostile, in-state rivalry game. He was ready to slink back upstairs, depressed by a loss, when Jalen Watts-Jackson returned the most memorable blocked punt in recent history.
“I started jumping on the couch and nearly fell over,” he said this week. “Everyone was just screaming.”
Lewerke will be at center stage this weekend at the Big House, leading a 3-1 Spartans team coming off a “confidence booster” of a win against Iowa on Saturday. Michigan State already has matched its win total from 2016, the worst season in Mark Dantonio's decade as a head coach, and now stares down a low-pressure shot to restore its perception on the field much sooner than anyone outside of East Lansing expected. The seventh-ranked Wolverines and their stingy defense remain heavy favorites, but an upset on Saturday would make Michigan State a force to reckon with in the Big Ten again and quickly jump to the top of Lewerke’s favorite moments.
It’s remarkable for a couple reasons that the starting quarterback (and to be fair he has been fully entrenched in that spot for only four games now) counts so fondly among his football memories a night when he sat on the couch and watched his teammates from an hour away.
First it’s a reminder of just how large a dose of college football’s unique brand of magic enveloped that game and that play. Beating an undefeated Michigan team on the rise in such an unimaginable, last-second fashion turned the psychological “little brother” complex on its head in ways that winning six of the previous seven meetings with the Wolverines had not. Dantonio, who has embraced this rivalry as much as any current coach has embraced the passion of any rivalry, seemingly had their number.
Second is that the Spartans have had as sharp of a decline in happy moments as any program in the country since then. Lewerke played as part of an unsettled rotation under center during a 3-9 season in 2016. He looked his most promising against the Wolverines, when he threw for 100 yards before suffering a broken leg in the second half, decidedly not a high moment for the young quarterback.
In 2015, Michigan State went on to beat Ohio State and win a Big Ten title in dramatic fashion in the months following Watts-Jackson’s return, but the stunner of a victory in Ann Arbor felt for a time like the peak of Dantonio’s stranglehold on the state of Michigan. This Saturday provides a somewhat unexpected shortcut to convince others that the fall on the field hasn’t been as precipitous or permanent as it appeared.
“We’re really excited to prove that we can play with the top teams in the nation,” linebacker Chris Frey said. “And it doesn’t matter what happened in the past, we’re a different team.”
There would still be heavy lifting ahead of them. A win against Michigan wouldn’t suddenly launch the Spartans back into contention for Big Ten titles. It would, though, provide the biggest confidence boost to date for a team and locker room that was divided in defeat last year.
Win against Michigan and a lot more seems possible for this year’s Spartans. A bowl trip, which was considered the mark of acceptable improvement at the start of the year, would be close to a sure thing. Doubts about how long it would take to repair some of the cracks that appeared in their foundation would be easier to flush.
“Any time you can beat those guys, good things happen around here,” center Brian Allen said. “Everyone is happier. Everything is genuinely better.”
Middle linebacker Joe Bachie, Lewerke’s counterpart for Michigan State’s defense, was still in high school during the team’s last trip to the Big House two years ago. He was working as a volunteer scoreboard operator for a youth league and checking scores on his phone periodically that night. He tucked the phone away in the fourth quarter and assumed his future teammates had lost before his pocket started vibrating incessantly.
Like Lewerke, Bachie didn’t need to be there to understand what a win against the Wolverines could do for the rest of the year.
“I don’t know what that feeling is yet. We didn’t get that win and get the job done (last year), but we know what this game means. I know what this game means,” he said. “It’s a statement game for us.”
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Wilton Speight threw his arms up in the air out in front of his face as another scoring opportunity crumbled at his feet. The usually unflappable Michigan quarterback seemed to be flapping late in the third quarter Saturday while an equally flummoxed home crowd booed the Wolverines offense for the second straight week.
No. 7 Michigan escaped a scare from Air Force 29-13 to stay unbeaten three games into the regular season. The final score belies the fact that the Falcons stayed within striking distance late into the fourth quarter and left the crowd in Ann Arbor concerned for an offense that has lacked creativity, explosive plays and the ability to finish drives. Michigan entered the game dead last among Power 5 schools in the percentage of red-zone trips that ended in touchdowns and was shut out on its four attempts inside the 20 Saturday.
Speight's exasperation showed after a wave of Air Force tacklers swallowed up a handoff to Ty Isaac in the Michigan backfield on a third-down play 8 yards from the end zone. That sent rookie kicker Quinn Nordin trotting from the sideline for the fourth of his record-tying five field goals on the afternoon. Nordin's 10 field goals through three games will probably be the most in college football when the weekend comes to a close. That is not the type of first-place spot that Michigan and an offense that pushed the creative envelope a year ago were hoping to hold as they get set for Big Ten play.
"Obviously, the frustration built up a little bit," Speight said. "But it was one of things where it was like, 'Ah, they fooled us.'"
Speight and coach Jim Harbaugh said Air Force's defense disguised its blitzes well throughout the game, especially in the red zone, to get the better of them on several occasions. Harbaugh said that while of course his team would like to be finishing those drives with touchdowns, he's confident that those will come as they continue to progress.
In the meantime, youth has helped the Wolverines plow ahead. Nordin and the rest of his underclassmen brethren were viewed as a liability this summer, as outsiders wondered how Harbaugh's fresh-faced recruits would handle the pressure of stepping into starring roles. Right now they are carrying the offense through its sluggish start.
Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush led the defense with 11 tackles and on two occasions smothered a rare pass attempt before Air Force's Arion Worthman had a chance to look downfield. Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones scored one of the team's two touchdowns with his effortless 79-yard weaving run on a punt return in the third quarter. He finished the game with 156 all-purpose yards. Then there was Nordin, who comfortably made all five of his kicks, including a 49-yard attempt to give Michigan a 9-6 lead in the closing seconds of the first half.
Speight's performance came under fire last week and will likely draw a fresh batch of criticism. He completed 14 of his 23 attempts for 169 yards through the air, at times overlooking open targets or missing them when he did spot them.
Responsibility for the inconsistency in getting the ball to the Wolverines' young playmakers, though, should fall as much on the coaching staff. Michigan struggled to find any rhythm in its calls. Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton share those duties. While former coordinator Jedd Fisch was breaking out the 11-man "snake" I-formation at his new gig at UCLA, the Wolverines lacked the type of ingenuity that inspired those types of interesting looks and the Big Ten's most productive offense (40.3 points per game) last fall.
Michigan doesn't need to put up 40 points on most weekends to keep its title hopes alive. The defense remains fierce and entertaining -- holding the Falcons to 232 yards and only one touchdown on a busted coverage. That side of the ball has still made as many trips to the end zone as it has allowed this season.
The Wolverines will need to be more opportunistic, though. Trading field goals for would-be touchdowns is enough to beat smaller teams from smaller conferences. It won't be enough to make it through the upcoming Big Ten slate unscathed.
"We'll keep forging ahead, keep making improvements. I like where our team is right now," Harbaugh said. "... Our team is moving the ball. That's a fact. I think the red-zone touchdowns will come."
Harbaugh added: "It's good to be Wilton Speight right now," pointing out that the junior was the quarterback of the No. 7 team in the country with an unbeaten record. Speight's frustrations won't boil away, though, until those touchdowns start to come.
Big things happened in the Big Ten in Week 2, headlined by disappointment at the Horseshoe as No. 2 Ohio State fell to No. 5 Oklahoma in a premier Saturday night clash. The lowlights extended to Northwestern, Nebraska and Rutgers, which allowed a program from the MAC to reach a new high.
Ohio State's loss means Penn State is now secure atop the power rankings after dispatching Pitt, followed by an unclear picture at the next three spots as Wisconsin and Michigan played sluggishly at times in victories on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Maryland and Michigan State held serve. Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois impressed, creating chaos in the bottom half of these rankings. And Iowa provided the most entertaining performance of the week.
1. Penn State (previous ranking: 2): The defending Big Ten champ is back on top after a 33-14 win over bitter rival Pitt in which Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley simply did their thing. Nothing spectacular was necessary in this win, though tight end Mike Gesicki caught a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter and the Nittany Lions benefited from three Pitt turnovers.
2. Wisconsin (3): Visiting Florida Atlantic hung around long enough to keep things interesting before freshman Jonathan Taylor’s third touchdown provided the final margin in a 31-14 win for the Badgers. Taylor rushed for 223 yards and Wisconsin held Lane Kiffin’s Owls to less than 250 yards in total offense.
3. Ohio State (1): The Buckeyes fell apart in the second half at home as Oklahoma rolled to a 31-16 win to avenge last year's loss to Ohio State in Norman. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield used Ohio Stadium as a platform to bolster his Heisman campaign, then planted the OU flag at midfield before the Sooners danced on the vaunted “O.” Ouch. Ohio State’s margin for error in 2017 is all but gone.
4. Michigan (4): The Wolverines led by just a field goal late in the third quarter before a decisive finish cemented a 36-14 win over Cincinnati at the Big House. Ty Isaac gained a career-high 133 yards on the ground, but expect coach Jim Harbaugh to work his team especially hard before a Week 3 visit from Air Force.
5. Maryland (5): There's not much to take away from a 63-17 rout of Towson, the Terps’ highest point total since 1954. If nothing else, they’re taking care of business under second-year coach D.J. Durkin. No letdown here after the upset win to open the season at Texas as freshman QB Kasim Hill played well in his starting debut and D.J. Moore scored three touchdowns.
6. Iowa (6): The Hawkeyes escaped Ames with a thrilling 44-41 overtime win over rival Iowa State. Iowa came back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter for its fourth victory in the past five games of the Cy-Hawk series. Defensive end Parker Hesse came up with a big interception late, and first-year QB Nathan Stanley threw for 333 yards and five scores.
7. Michigan State (9): The Spartans haven’t surrendered an offensive touchdown in eight quarters after a 28-14 win over Western Michigan, which found the end zone in East Lansing on a 67-yard fumble return and a 100-yard kickoff return. Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke threw for 161 yards and rushed for 81. The Spartans, one win from matching their 2016 total, get an open date before hosting Notre Dame in Week 4.
8. Indiana (10): Redshirt freshman QB Peyton Ramsey replaced struggling starter Richard Lagow in the second quarter and completed 16 of 20 passes for 173 yards and two scores as the Hoosiers rolled past host Virginia 34-17. Indiana was solid in all phases, scoring on a punt return by J-Shun Harris and holding the Cavaliers to 314 total yards.
9. Nebraska (8): Future performances will tell us if the Cornhuskers found themselves in the second half, nearly rallying from a 28-point deficit before falling 42-35 at Oregon. Nebraska held the Ducks scoreless after halftime, but Cornhuskers QB Tanner Lee threw the last of his four interceptions with two minutes to play after getting the chance to drive for a touchdown to force overtime.
10. Minnesota (11) The Golden Gophers routed Oregon State 48-14 on the road, an impressive feat despite the Beavers’ status among the worst teams in the Power 5. Minnesota forced three turnovers and rushed for 253 yards, led by Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who combined to run for four touchdowns. In addition, Conor Rhoda appeared to take control of the quarterback spot.
11. Purdue (12): Purdue got a nice 44-21 win -- coach Jeff Brohm’s first with the Boilermakers -- over MAC contender Ohio on Friday night. David Blough took over for Elijah Sindelar at quarterback in the second quarter and led Purdue to points on four consecutive possessions en route to a 558-yard team offensive output.
12. Northwestern (7): Well, the Wildcats’ struggles with Nevada in Week 1 were apparently no fluke. Duke dominated Northwestern in a 41-17 win in Durham behind 305 yards passing and 108 rushing from QB Daniel Jones. The problems appear to run deep for Northwestern as Clayton Thorson threw a pair of interceptions and Justin Jackson rushed for just 18 yards on seven carries.
13. Illinois (14): Progress, for sure, from the Illini, who moved to 2-0 with a 20-7 win over favored Western Kentucky out of Conference USA. Illinois held the high-powered WKU offense, which led the nation in scoring last season, to 244 total yards and got 111 rushing yards from freshman Mike Epstein and an interception returned for a touchdown by Julian Jones.
14. Rutgers (13): If you needed confirmation that the Scarlet Knights aren’t progressing like other programs in the Big Ten, look no further than a 16-13 loss to Eastern Michigan on Saturday -- the Eagles' first win over a Power 5 foe in 59 tries, including 39 against Big Ten competition. EMU took the lead on a 24-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter and staged two defensive stands to secure the win.
The Big Ten enjoyed a successful opening week, with 10 wins in 12 nonconference games, losing by only respectable margins to returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville (Purdue) and 2016 College Football Playoff participant Washington (Rutgers).
The stakes rise a bit in Week 2, headlined, of course, by a visit from Oklahoma to face Ohio State on Saturday night (7:30 ET, ABC) and rivalries are rekindled in Pennsylvania and Iowa.
Visit our college football PickCenter page for additional information on these games and many more. Here’s our forecast for Week 2.
Northwestern at Duke, Saturday, noon, ESPNU
Dan Murphy: Had to pick at least one upset this week, and this is the best candidate. Northwestern looked shaky at times in its opening win over Nevada. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones can go toe-to-toe with Clayton Thorson in what should be a fun one in Durham, North Carolina. Duke 35, Northwestern 31
Mitch Sherman: Don’t put too much stock into the details of an opener. Remember two years ago, when the Wildcats beat Christian McCaffrey and Stanford in early September? Teams change, and they change fast at this time of year. I still believe in the Cats as a serious contender in the Big Ten West. Northwestern 35, Duke 24
Tom VanHaaren: This one is tough because I thought Northwestern was going to surprise a lot of people this season. Week 1 against Nevada was a win, but it wasn’t very convincing. Duke just threw up 60 on N.C. Central and had a relaxing time doing it. I’m George Costanza when it comes to predicting things; the opposite usually happens, but I’m sticking with the Wildcats. Northwestern 31, Duke 24
Iowa at Iowa State, Saturday, noon, ESPN2
Sherman: This series often defies logic. And sometimes it defines seasons, such as in 2012, when Iowa State last played in a bowl game. The Cyclones won that CyHawk thriller 9-6 en route to a magical 6-7 finish, while the Hawkeyes dipped to 4-8. There’s more magic in store for the Cyclones this year. Iowa State 17, Iowa 14
VanHaaren: I underestimated the Hawkeyes' defense in Week 1 and chose Wyoming over Iowa. Hawkeyes fans let me know about it, so I’m not making the same mistake twice. I’ll take Iowa on the road as long as the turnovers are minimal. Iowa 24, Iowa State 13
Murphy: The Hawkeyes' defense showed last week that there is a legitimate reason to believe in Iowa this season. They'll hold the Cyclones to 100 or so yards on the ground and provide plenty of cushion for the offense to bring home a win. Iowa 20, Iowa State 9
Pittsburgh at No. 4 Penn State, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC
Murphy: Nothing in State College feels the same as it did a year ago, when the pitchforks were pointed at James Franklin after a loss to Pitt. The Nittany Lions are now the most entertaining offense in the Big Ten and have the firepower to blow past Pitt. Penn State 42, Pitt 24
VanHaaren: The last three home teams have won this game, and the last three teams with the most rushing yards have also won. Pitt won last season running behind James Conner. This season, it’s the Saquon Barkley show. The Nittany Lions are out to avenge last season’s loss. Penn State 38, Pitt 21
Sherman: Penn State is so much better than it was at this time last year. I have nothing else to add. Penn State 45, Pitt 17
Nebraska at Oregon, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox
Sherman: Nebraska tried to play it safe last week, guarding against the big Arkansas State plays. Do that against the Ducks and Oregon will turn those short receptions into long touchdowns. I think Nebraska coach Bob Diaco’s defense will show up to play, but first-year QB Tanner Lee will wobble at a raucous Autzen Stadium. Oregon 37, Nebraska 27
VanHaaren: Oregon put up 77 on Southern Utah in the first week. I know it’s Southern Utah, but 77 is a lot of points. Nebraska won 43-36 against Arkansas State in its first game, so there are still some kinks to work out. This game is happening too early in the season for Nebraska. Oregon 52, Nebraska 41
Murphy: No need to overthink the math here. Oregon gained more than 700 yards in its season opener. The Huskers gave up 497. Lee won't be able to help them solve that problem. Oregon 44, Nebraska 36
No. 5 Oklahoma at No. 2 Ohio State, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC
VanHaaren: Indiana attacked Ohio State’s corners last week, passing outside the hashes on 86 percent of QB Richard Lagow’s throws. Baker Mayfield ranks first in completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage on throws outside the hashes, but I think Ohio State is going to learn from the first game and win this matchup with Oklahoma. Ohio State 42, Oklahoma 31
Murphy: The Buckeyes won this monster matchup a year ago thanks to their best deep-passing performance of the year. And while that's been a focus all offseason, it will be the uber-athletic front seven that helps them beat the Sooners this time around, doing just enough to contain Mayfield. Ohio State 30, Oklahoma 28
Sherman: The Sooners haven’t lost since Ohio State stormed Norman a year ago. Look for Oklahoma to start strong this time around. You might not see a college game this year that features better play in the trenches, especially when Oklahoma possesses the ball. Watch that matchup. I agree with Dan that the Buckeyes will eventually get to Mayfield. Ohio State 34, Oklahoma 31
- Purdue over Ohio
- Maryland over Towson
- No. 9 Wisconsin over Florida Atlantic
- No. 8 Michigan over Cincinnati
- Michigan State over Western Michigan
- Rutgers over Eastern Michigan
- Indiana over Virginia
- Western Kentucky over Illinois
- Minnesota over Oregon State
There was an air of youthful defiance floating through the Michigan locker room Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after the Wolverines took No. 17 Florida behind one of the world’s fanciest woodsheds and handed them what Jim McElwain declared to be a “whooping.”
McElwain and his team caught the brunt of Michigan’s ire on Saturday, but the Wolverines don’t appear to have exhausted their supply of prove-you-wrong exuberance yet. Michigan’s defense spent an offseason stewing in a broth of doubt. Members of the group took note of questions about their ability to replace 10 starters without taking a step backward. They took note of the pregame slights coming out of Gainesville and talk of Florida’s expectations for the season opener. They took them to heart.
“Being told you’re too young is an insult,” defensive tackle Lawrence Marshall said Monday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I can play college football just like anyone else can play college football. We got to prove on a bigger stage that we’re here, and we are meant to be here.”
Marshall wasn’t the only one who said he felt insulted in the lead-up to Saturday’s debut. He and his teammates turned that into a performance that included as many tackles for loss (11) as Florida had rushing yards. There seemed to be plenty left in the tank to help fuel the early makings of a new identity for a group that shouldn’t have to take a step backward after consecutive 10-win seasons to start Harbaugh’s tenure. This Michigan team may be unseasoned, but it sure is salty.
No fresh face embodied that attitude better than middle linebacker Devin Bush. With a team-high seven tackles and two sacks in his first career start, the sophomore blossomed into a leader on the field despite almost being ejected for targeting on the first play of the game.
“That’s just what I do. If they want to eject me, eject me,” Bush said Saturday night in the clipped tone of someone who still had plenty of adrenaline flowing through him. What did he make of all this talk about his pack of underclassmen not having the goods to take over for the star-studded, veteran group from last year?
“Young don’t mean nothing,” he said.
Part way through August’s camp, a couple of members of Michigan’s famed Fab Five basketball team visited to share some pearls of wisdom. After that day’s practice, Bush said he knew all about what the hoops stars did as freshmen and sophomores even though he wasn't even born when they took college basketball by storm in the early 1990s. He certainly knows how to channel their confidence.
“We’re a confident unit,” Harbaugh said Monday. “We thought we were going to be good, and we were good.”
Exactly how good they can be still is far from answered. Florida’s history of ineptitude on offense makes them an unreliable measuring stick. Don’t confuse that mention of the Fab Five with a comparison. Right now, the only thing the football team has proven it has in common with the legendary Wolverines from a generation ago is that it’s unafraid of its own age.
Harbaugh found plenty of faults to highlight after reviewing the season’s first bit of film. He called the effort by Michigan’s offense to stop two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the second quarter “atrocious.” He addressed some areas that need improvement in the running game and on special teams.
Quinn Nordin, for example, set a school record by kicking two field goals of 50-plus yards in his first college game, yet missed two other attempts. His impressive, imperfect day was a good microcosm for what we know about this team so far.
“I think he responds to the moment and to the pressure. I think he’s got that wonderful quality about him,” Harbaugh said of Nordin before noting the misses. “That’s a bit of a theme that we have. It wasn’t perfect. There are definitely things to coach and we’ll see if we can improve.”
The Wolverines have a little leg room to get better after getting past the lone Power 5 opponent on their nonconference schedule. They are a four-plus-touchdown favorite in their home opener against Cincinnati this weekend and should be laying comfortable point spreads for the next several weeks while working out the kinks of inexperience.
Harbuagh said he’s looking for “a season of increases.” That applies, he said, to everyone on the roster -- the coaching staff, the starting quarterback, players on both sides of the ball and even the rookie kicker who carved a zig-zag pattern into the back of his hair last week as an ode to the closer mentality of Rick Vaughn.
Yes, that would be Charlie Sheen’s heartthrob, fire-throwing, near-sighted ex-con character from "Major League" -- yet another reference that predates the referencer’s existence on this planet. Nordin said he had to show YouTube clips to a couple of his teammates for them to understand what he was going for. When asked Saturday if the similarities between him and Vaughn stretch beyond their hairstyles, Nordin smiled. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. Then he turned and walked back into the locker room.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The youngest team in college football has the goods to defend against some growing pains.
Not one of the 11 defenders who started Michigan’s first game in 2016 was on the field for Saturday’s first snap at AT&T Stadium. The defense’s only returning starter, captain Mike McCray, missed the first series, but he and the rest of the Wolverines’ front seven picked up right where the Big Ten’s best defense left off last year. They held No. 17 Florida to 192 total yards (only 11 on the ground) and kept the Gators' offense from scoring after an opening-drive field goal.
Senior Chase Winovich provided an exclamation point in the final two minutes with Michigan's fifth sack of the day. His hit popped the ball loose from quarterback Malik Zaire's hands, and linebacker Noah Furbush flopped on it in the end zone to cap a 33-17 win for the 11th-ranked Wolverines.
"Young don't mean nothing," said sophomore linebacker Devin Bush, who had a team-high seven tackles and two sacks. "Football is still football."
The limited sample size makes it hard to say whether those ugly numbers should be credited more to a defense that to the naked eye looked maybe even a step faster than last year’s group or to the ineptitude of Florida’s first attempt at offense this year. It might be both.
Beyond a two-play stretch in the second quarter, the Gators never presented a real threat to breaching the goal line -- or the first-down line with any regularity, for that matter. Florida moved the sticks twice in its first three plays, and then only five times until the final drive of the game.
The Gators' offense, as it has many times in recent history, came from the defense. Senior Duke Dawson snatched one ball that deflected off the hands of Michigan receiver Kekoa Crawford and returned it 48 yards for a score -- the third pick-six of his career. Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight overthrew his very next pass and Florida freshman CJ Henderson picked it off and streaked down the sideline for another score.
Speight, like the rest of the Wolverines, took his lumps in Arlington but did enough to establish himself as the clear leader of Michigan’s offense. He finished 11-of-25 with 181 yards and one long touchdown throw to freshman Tarik Black. Along with the interceptions, he also missed Crawford for what should have been an easy touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Florida made its share of opening-day mistakes, too, notably fumbling twice to even up the turnover battle in the third quarter. Both of those were converted into field goals for the Wolverines. The biggest mistakes for the Gators, though, came before they arrived in Texas. Suspensions cost them 10 players for Saturday’s game, including top playmakers Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett. Their absence took the teeth out of Florida’s offense no matter who was under center.
Michigan's youth showed itself at times, but the concerns that it could hold Jim Harbaugh & Co. back from competing with the top tier of the Big Ten this season should be all but quelled. The Wolverines should be at least a touchdown favorite in each of their next five games before heading to Happy Valley in October. By then, promising young receivers and defensive backs should be hitting their stride at the college level and handing out more pain than they're feeling.
One of Jim Harbaugh's very first directives to his new players when he arrived at Michigan was to seek a "battle rhythm." Like many coaches, Harbaugh wanted his players to develop routines that made the grinding demands of college football into daily habits.
"Basically just eat, sleep, football, school, repeat," junior quarterback Wilton Speight said. "It gets repetitive to where your body builds a callus to it, and you get really good at becoming numb to the pain of it."
Speight left out at least one element of the rhythm that he and his fellow quarterbacks especially have developed in the past three years. One that, under the close supervision of their head coach, has become ingrained or implied enough in their daily lives not to really register anymore: constant pressure.
"That’s Coach Harbaugh’s mission, I think," Speight said. "To make sure we feel uncomfortable at all times."
Speight is in the midst of his third preseason quarterback battle under Harbaugh. He was an afterthought in the first, before moving up the depth chart enough to secure a backup position behind Jake Rudock. He was a surprise front-runner alongside John O'Korn the second time through -- ultimately winning the job and his first nine starts in 2016 before a shoulder injury precipitated the Wolverines’ 1-3 finish in their final four games.
This time around O’Korn is the surprise contender. The fifth-year senior has moved past promising youngster Brandon Peters as the primary competition for Speight, according to the only update Harbaugh plans to give before the week of Michigan’s season opener. O’Korn said he has no idea when the coach will declare a winner in this August’s QB competition rematch. At both the macro level of depth chart determinations and the micro level of blitzes and obstacles during passing drills, there aren't many opportunities for either to relax. For now, he and Speight have both seemingly found their bearings while operating in a system designed to keep them guessing.
O’Korn’s college career started far from discomfort. As a true freshman at Houston in 2013, he threw for 3,117 yards and 25 touchdowns en route to winning his league’s Freshman of the Year award. He thrived with the confidence that comes alongside security. The following summer his name landed on lists and in conversations about the sport’s top honors.
Five weeks into his sophomore year, though, he found himself out of the Cougars' lineup and searching for a new home.
“You’re getting talked about for the Heisman Trophy, Davey O’Brien [Award] and a few weeks later you’re benched,” he said. “I felt at times like I was a scapegoat at Houston for a lot of things that were going on in that program. That’ll shake an 18-year-old kid.”
In a season-and-a-half at Michigan -- the first as a scout team transfer and assumed heir to the quarterbacking throne and the second as Speight’s backup -- O’Korn says he rehabbed his confidence. Enough so that he saw Speight’s injury in November as a shot at his Cardale Jones moment, the more contemporary version of the classic Wally Pipp scenario. While O’Korn made a couple of big plays to help Michigan beat Indiana, it was hardly the bombs-away performance Jones had while taking the baton in the final leg of Ohio State’s 2014 national championship season.
Speight took back the reins the following week, and in the spring O’Korn looked to be a distant third on the quarterback depth chart.
“In the spring game I was wondering if I was going to get a chance or not,” he said. “... It was what it was.”
With only one year of eligibility remaining and without an undergraduate degree yet, O’Korn had no FBS football options but to remain at Michigan and try again to unseat Speight. He said he didn’t consider leaving.
O’Korn credited the arrival of new passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton with helping him find a comfort level he hasn’t felt since things fell apart at Houston. He says he’s scrambling less, relying less on his athletic ability to get the offense out of sticky situations, and feeling more in command of the Wolverines' playbook and what’s going on at the line of scrimmage in front of him.
Speight, in one sense, is moving in the opposite direction. He dropped 23 pounds this offseason by eating only "animals and things that grew from the ground" to make himself more mobile. He said he feels lighter on his feet in the pocket and also hopes to be able to pick up more than two or three yards at a clip when he’s forced to improvise. In another sense, he and O’Korn are both charting a similar course: head first into elements of the game that don’t come naturally.
The first two quarterback decisions Harbaugh made at Michigan turned out to be less dramatic than they seemed at the time. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock elevated himself in the original group earlier than anyone in Ann Arbor let on in 2015. Speight admitted last fall that he had a good sense that he’d be under center -- or that someone was going to have to rip the job from his hands -- through most of last year’s training camp.
It’s hard to say if this year’s contest is more earnest than those or another machination of Harbaugh’s core coaching pillar to create competition and unease at every possible opportunity. The participants may not even know for sure.
Speight said Wednesday night that he felt good about the work he’s put in so far this camp, just as he did a year ago at this time. Then again, after a few years in Ann Arbor all of Michigan’s quarterbacks are feeling good in uncomfortable, uncertain territory.
No college football season goes completely as planned. Freak plays, off days and heroic performances are all capable of producing the yearly upsets that make the sport so compelling.
Upsets are, of course, tough to predict by nature. However, the Big Ten harbors plenty of opportunities for unlikely wins and losses this coming season. Let’s take a look at a few matchups that could result in unprecedented victories -- or losses --for the conference's East Division teams.
Darrell K Royal Stadium will be rocking for the debut of the Tom Herman era in Austin. Herman starts his tenure as Texas' coach against another up-and-coming Ohio native -- Maryland coach D.J. Durkin. Can the Terps ruin the party? While they’ll have a virtually unknown entity at quarterback operating a fast-paced offense, they have a well-kept secret: running back Ty Johnson, who averaged more than 9 yards per carry last season.
Texas, currently a three-touchdown favorite, will be playing for the first time under a new staff that is expected to deliver right off the bat. Maybe Herman will have ironed the wrinkles out of a very talented roster prior to kickoff. Then again, maybe not.
No matter how they perform the rest of the season, coach Mark Dantonio’s teams always seem to put up a good fight against Michigan. Last year, the floundering Spartans managed to stay within striking distance of a superior Michigan team despite losing their quarterback to a broken leg in the middle of the game. Given the rivalry with Michigan State, this young Wolverines team can expect to play in front of a revved up Big House crowd. While Michigan State remains well behind coach Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines in the talent department, the Spartans are no strangers to upsetting their Ann Arbor rivals at the Big House.
While Oklahoma, Penn State and Michigan will likely pose problems for the top-ranked Buckeyes, the Cornhuskers might have the best chance at tripping up Ohio State. This mid-October matchup will take place in Lincoln, which should provide Nebraska with a much-needed edge. The game is also scheduled one week before the Buckeyes face Penn State in what is likely to be the biggest Big Ten contest of the year.
The Hoosiers had a strong track record under former coach Kevin Wilson of giving top-10 teams a scare, even if Indiana typically lacked the firepower to come out on top after four quarters. Can new coach Tom Allen change that? His best chance may come against Wisconsin, a team that isn’t expected to win games by putting up a ton of points. Indiana’s defense made a big leap with Allen serving as a defensive coordinator last year, and the unit returns two potential All-Big Ten players. If the Hoosiers can stymie the Badgers' offense and get a few big plays from their talented receiving corps, IU could throw a wrench in the Big Ten standings in early November.
You know when to watch them. You know where to watch them. Now it's time to figure out which Big Ten games are going to be the most important ones to watch in 2017.
The cutthroat East Division has plenty of high-powered matchups slated for the coming fall both in league play and in nonconference games earlier in the season. Let's take a look at the high-stakes battles that will have the most impact on the divisional race in the East, and largely on the college football landscape at large.
Ohio State vs. Penn State, Oct. 28
Let's start with the obvious. The defending conference champions visit the likely preseason No. 1 team in late October. If anyone is going to go toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer's high-powered Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions are a good bet. Penn State will head to the Horseshoe one week after another monster matchup against Michigan.
For the sake of keeping this list from getting too repetitive, let's lump the meetings between those three programs (Michigan plays Ohio State on the final Saturday of the season in a game that is, as usual, one of college football's biggest of the year) together. Whoever comes out of that round robin looking the best will more than likely have a strong case for a slot in the College Football Playoff. The stakes won't get any higher.
Ohio State vs. Oklahoma, Sept. 9
The second week of the season is loaded with intriguing and potentially season-shaping games. None will be a bigger draw than the top-10 rematch in Columbus. Ohio State beat the Sooners last season in Oklahoma with four passing touchdowns. The Buckeyes' tweaked passing attack for 2017 will get a chance to shine in prime time. If it succeeds, a victory would help the Big Ten's reputation as early-season narratives start to pick up steam and provide an early bullet point for Urban Meyer's playoff resume.
Penn State vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 9
A few hours before kickoff in Columbus, the Nittany Lions will be looking for revenge against in-state rival Pitt. The first meeting between these two programs in 16 years provided some drama a year ago when Trace McSorley drove the Penn State offense down to the 30-yard line before he was intercepted in the final minutes of a 42-39 loss. After a season opener against Akron, the Saturday afternoon game in Happy Valley will give McSorley & Co. a chance to prove that they are picking up where they left off at the end of last season.
Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18
If both teams hold their form throughout the regular season, this will be the top cross-divisional game of the year. The Badgers -- favorites in the West -- will get a chance to prove they're worthy competition for the East Division and pick up an eye-catching victory on a schedule that doesn't have many other opponents that rise above pedestrian. Michigan has to make this trip one week before hosting the rival Buckeyes. A win over Wisconsin would give the Wolverines a little more wiggle room in their championship hopes if they end up splitting with Penn State and Ohio State.
It doesn’t take long to think of college football games that hinge on a major special teams play. Whether it’s a last-second field-goal attempt or a field-flipping punt return, a strong third phase is usually the difference that can turn one or two losses into wins. A weak one can quickly turn a couple wins into losses.
In the past two weeks, we’ve reviewed the Big Ten’s cream of the crop at key position groups on both sides of the ball. We wrap up our list of the league’s best units by taking a look at special teams.
Best of the best: According to ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings, only two teams (Stanford and Memphis) were more effective on special teams in 2016 than Michigan. The Wolverines led the Big Ten in several special teams stats. Despite losing do-it-all kicker Kenny Allen and do-it-all returner Jabrill Peppers, they should be a formidable group again this fall.
Quinn Nordin will take over placekicking duties for Allen, and the big-legged sophomore made a good early impression by knocking down a 48-yard field goal with plenty of room to spare during the spring game. A whole host of young athletes are in the running to take over for Peppers in the return game. And as electric as he was, Michigan's best plays while lining up against a kicker came on blocks. The Wolverines blocked a combined seven kicks and punts a year ago – more than any other power five school. This year, special teams coach Chris Partridge said the goal is to focus more on breaking big returns than blocking kicks.
Next in line: Penn State returns a trio of talented specialists in the kicking game. Redshirt senior Tyler Davis tied for the league's best field-goal percentage by hitting 22 of 24 attempts last season, although his longest attempt was only 40 yards out. Blake Gillikin set a freshman school record by averaging 42.8 yards per punt, including 13 attempts that traveled at least 50 yards. And Joey Julius added an extra dimension to the Nittany Lions’ kickoff coverage by being as punishing of a tackler as any kicker in recent memory. With the athletes to make big plays in the return game, Penn State is set up well for all angles of special teams.
Wisconsin is another team to watch, especially as the Badgers expect to get placekicker Rafael Gaglianone back after the Brazilian missed most of 2016 with an injury.
Don’t sleep on: Iowa was among the league’s most efficient special teams units a year ago. Assistant coach LeVar Woods said this spring that he’s had starters lining up outside his office to ask about playing on special teams this offseason. The Hawkeyes have to replace several key figures -- most notably returner Desmond King -- but the focus on that area of the field and the dividends it paid last year bode well for Kirk Ferentz’s team.
In eight of the past nine college football seasons, at least one Big Ten program has held its opponents to less than an average of 100 rushing yards per game. No other league can claim that. Michigan State came up just shy of helping the conference make it nine out of nine when it allowed 100.5 yards per game in 2011. Will another group join the ranks of that elite accomplishment in 2017?
There are certainly some contenders. Last week we reviewed the most promising looking units the Big Ten has to offer on the offensive side of the ball. This week, we’ll examine defense and special teams. That starts with a look at the teams that should have the most success in what most coordinators think is the foundation of a good defense: stopping the run.
Best of the best: Wisconsin has held its opponents’ rushing average below the century mark in each of the past two seasons. The Badgers' front seven is loaded with depth, talent and experience again. The starting defensive line’s two-deep returns intact. There are at least three or four viable starters for the inside linebacker positions as well, including last year’s leading tackler, T.J. Edwards, and Chris Orr, who was expected to do big things before suffering a season-ending injury on the first snap in 2016.
The only questions about the Badgers' ability to build on their run-stopping reputation come from having to replace stars at outside linebacker and defensive coordinator. First-round draft pick T.J. Watt and newly-minted Green Bay Packer Vince Biegel were both game-changing players for the Badgers. New coordinator Jim Leonhard thinks he’ll have some answers at that position, especially with junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel.
Next in line: Ohio State doesn’t sit very far from the top in any phase of the game for 2017. The Buckeyes may end up with the best defensive line in college football, which should help the speed behind them clean up any ball carriers that slip past the line of scrimmage.
Tyquan Lewis is the returning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and there’s a decent chance he’ll be battling for a starting spot with the likes of Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard. Behind them, linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker provide a very athletic second line of defense. Michigan warrants some consideration here as well. The Wolverines lack depth and experience in the front seven, but coaches in Ann Arbor think this group (led by star defensive end Rashan Gary) could be even faster than the unit that allowed a league-best 3.22 yards per carry a year ago.
Don’t sleep on: Minnesota may not have faced offensive juggernauts in the West Division at quite the same frequency as some of those teams on the other side of the conference, but the Gophers allowed more than 200 yards on the ground only once -- against rival Wisconsin. Linebacker is the deepest position on the roster for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. That group has the potential to be one of the best in the league, especially if redshirt senior Cody Poock can stay healthy. There’s depth there, too, with a trio of young players who all saw significant playing time as true freshmen last season.
Lastly, it would be a mistake to talk about Big Ten front-seven strength without mentioning Iowa. The Hawkeyes return star linebacker Josey Jewell for a final season and have plenty of pieces around him to be stout against the run.