We knew this was going to be a weird Big Ten season, what with the late-October start and empty stadiums; the Wisconsin “crowd” showed even less rhythm than they usually do doing the post-third-quarter playing of House of Pain's "Jump Around."
But an opening weekend with wins by Indiana, Purdue AND Rutgers? That simply hasn’t happened since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014. (They came close on Oct. 4, 2014; the trio all won, but Indiana’s victory came against North Texas, which will have to wait for its Big Ten invitation until the conference targets the Dallas-by-way-of-Denton, Texas, TV market.)
Still, we shouldn’t be too surprised by the weekend’s oddities — a Wisconsin QB with five passing TDs? — considering the year so far. And there was still plenty that seemed familiar: Michigan won the Little Brown Jug, Ohio State throttled an opening opponent (and didn’t even have to write a check for it) and, of course, Maryland lost. Hey, somebody’s gotta fill in for Rutgers.
Anyway, let’s run through the conference, from least miserable to most:
14. Rutgers: W, 38-27, over MSU
Congrats, guys, you finally took away our go-to weekly source for jokes (almost). But seriously, that makes it wins against six Big Ten teams since joining the conference in 2014. Just seven more — Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin — to go.
13. Indiana: W, 36-35 (OT), over PSU
It wasn’t pretty at times — 28 points in regulation is one thing, 186 total yards is another — but ending a 41-game losing streak against top-10 teams, one that dated back to 1987, heals all wounds. (Bonus points for “wired coach” moves such as “let them score” and “go for the win in OT.”)
12. Michigan: W, 49-24, over Minnesota
The Wolverines piled up 49 points and 478 total yards, which doesn’t seem that dominant until you notice that three of the touchdown drives went for 25, 8 and 29 yards. No wonder the burning post-game question for Jim Harbaugh — in just his second road win over a top-25 team — was all about his pants.
11. Wisconsin: W, 45-7, over Illinois
When redshirt freshman Graham Mertz completes his first 17 pass attempts of the 2020 season, you don’t have much to complain about. (Mertz also completed his final six passes of 2019, in mop-up duty, giving him a completion streak of 23.) Mertz finished 20-for-21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns after going 9-for-10 last year; that puts him on pace for incompletion No. 3 some time around Thanksgiving. (Only two other Badgers have passed for five TDs in a game: Darrell Bevell in 1993 and Jim Sorgi in 2003, in case you were wondering about Mertz’s future plans.)
10. Northwestern: W, 43-3, over Maryland
Kudos to coach Pat Fitzgerald on reaching 100 wins. It’s not just that Fitzgerald is the winningest coach in school history — Pappy Waldorf, who coached from 1935-46 is No. 2 at 49 wins — but that it took him only 16-ish seasons to hit the century mark. For comparison, his six immediate predecessors — Randy Walker, Gary Barnett, Francis Peay, Dennis Green, Rick Venturi (who went 1-31-1) and John Pont — needed 31 seasons to win 101 games.
9. Ohio State: W, 52-17, over Nebraska
Speaking of near-perfect quarterback play, the Buckeyes got a 20-for-21 performance from Justin Fields, doing his best “throwing at the NFL combine” imitation. Ohio State’s biggest problem was scoring a touchdown with 18 seconds left, which coach Ryan Day apologized for after the game. We don’t know what they’re upset about: Woody Hayes would have gone for the two-point conversion.
8. Purdue: W, 24-20, over Iowa
Coach Jeff Brohm was in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, so his brother, Brian — Purdue’s co-offensive coordinator and himself a standout QB at Louisville once upon a time — took over. Star wideout Rondale Moore, who missed most of last season with a hamstring injury, was out for an undisclosed reason, so wide receiver David Bell hauled in 13 catches for 121 yards and all three Boilermaker touchdowns. They’d be farther up this list, but for allowing 17 points in the second quarter to Iowa.
7. Nebraska: L, 52-17, to Ohio State
A 35-point loss should result in more misery, but, c’mon, they knew this was coming. Athletic director Bill Moos said he “wasn’t toasting champagne” a month ago when he saw the schedule. The Huskers didn’t even look that bad early, and quarterback Adrian Martinez completed 75% of his pass attempts and rushed for 88 yards. It could have been worse.
6. Iowa: L, 24-20, to Purdue
Trips to West Lafayette are rarely fun, and losses there — especially winnable ones — are never fun, especially when you led into the final minute. But the Hawkeyes appear to have found a keeper at quarterback in sophomore Spencer Petras, who threw for 265 yards, didn’t have an interception and rushed for a touchdown in the second quarter.
5. Illinois: L, 45-7, to Wisconsin
On the second play of the game, the Illini fumbled the ball away to the Badgers, who were at least polite enough to take three minutes to drive 33 yards for their first touchdown. On the bright side, quarterback Brandon Peters had a couple nice runs and finished with seven carries for 75 yards. Every other Illinois player, unfortunately, combined for 18 carries for 56 yards. It was that kind of game for the 19 ½-point underdog Illini.
4. Minnesota: L, 49-24, to Michigan
Losing starting punter Mark Crawford (and kicker Michael Lantz) wasn’t the deciding factor, not when Michigan piled up more than 250 yards rushing. But the special teams woes it created didn’t help. Watching grad transfer punter Michael Stephenson step in with four punts averaging 35 yards and P.J. Fleck opt for a fake-punt rush in the second quarter was like trying to super-glue a paper cut shut only to wind up gluing three fingers together instead.
3. Maryland: L, 43-3, to Northwestern
The Terrapins assume Rutgers’ position as the butt of Big Ten jokes with their eighth straight loss in conference play, the longest active losing streak by 5 games. Still, they’re slightly ahead of the Scarlet Knights, reputation-wise, with wins over nine of the 13 other teams. Just Ohio State, Wisconsin and … Northwestern (really?) to go. Saturday’s game against the Wildcats wasn’t a win, by any means, but you did lead for 91 seconds, from a field goal on the opening drive to Northwestern’s first touchdown, kicking off a run of 43 unanswered points.
2. Penn State: L, 36-35 (OT), to Indiana
How do you lose despite outgaining Indiana 463-186 in regulation and possessing the ball nearly twice as long (40:25-19:35)? Committing 10 penalties for 100 yards, including two drive-extending plays, is a start, as is, according to the Associated Press’ Michael Marot: “three red-zone possessions that produced no points, two interceptions, two missed field goals, one lost fumble, a muffed punt and a fumbled kickoff return.” Yep, that’ll do it.
1. Michigan State: L, 38-27, to Rutgers
You turn over the ball seven times, you’re gonna be pretty miserable. You lose to Rutgers, you’re gonna be pretty miserable. You lose to Rutgers WHILE turning it over seven times … yeah, this isn’t rocket science. We’d say it could only get better from here for Mel Tucker & Co., but the John L. Smith era wasn’t that long ago.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten football misery index: Replacing Rutgers as butt of our jokes