The Big Ten Breakdown: Big Wins, Tough Losses. Who Is Really A Contender?

There was so much to digest in the exciting slate of games in Week 1. The opening weekend featured a host of high profile conference matchups in the Big Ten. Between the high competitive Thursday night matchup between Ohio State and Minnesota and the less than stellar contest between Iowa and Indiana, there was so much to learn about what these teams actually are in 2021. Would Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin bounce back from a disappointing campaign and can Indiana capitalize off last season’s momentum and ride the hot hand of Michael Penix Jr? Some of those answers came into focus as the sun set on Saturday.


Saturday was supposed to be the day that Indiana told the college football world that it was here to stay. QB Michael Penix Jr was healthy, and they had all their 2020 momentum at their back. Instead of seeing Penix lead an explosive offensive attack and Tom Allen’s aggressive defense stopping the Hawkeyes’ ground game in the backfield, Penix was making mistakes in the backfield and the Iowa rushing attack controlled the game on the ground. Indiana is better than what they showed in their 34-6 loss in Iowa City, but it doesn’t look like they are ready to transition from the hunter to the hunted. 


After they lost their first two games of 2020, Iowa was considered an afterthought in the Big Ten West title race. Though they won their final 6 games, they weren't really in the discussion for the conference title game. Saturday should change the narrative. It was classic Iowa football: play solid defense, force a few turnovers, and have a mistake-free offense that can pound the football. Iowa did just that and now should be considered the frontrunners to win the West. QB Spencer Petras looks competent enough to manage a game, and the defense looks like it could be one of the better iterations under Kirk Ferentz. The only question for the Hawkeyes moving forward is whether this defensive line is dominant enough to get pressure with only four rushers.

Penn State

James Franklin appears to have his mojo back. The Penn State head coach has often been criticized for his in-game coaching decisions that have resulted in losses against quality opponents, and rightfully so. But Saturday in Madison, he was able to pull the right levers that resulted in a huge road win for the Nittany Lions. Sean Clifford wasn’t great and still needs to play better, but he was effective enough to lead three scoring drives in the 2nd half, one of which culminated in a 49 yard TD bomb to Jahan Dotson. The defense looked to be in its pre-2020 form as well, holding the vaunted Badger rushing attack to a mere 3 yards per attempt. Franklin needs to continue to get RB Noah Cain more involved, but it looks like Penn State washed away the 2020 fiasco and is ready to challenge Ohio State again.


Great Defense. Solid, but not spectacular running game. Graham Mertz must be better though. He was the darling of the Big Ten’s opening weekend last year, but against Penn State this year, it looked as though he had regressed. Yes, he was under siege much of the day, but his two interceptions were incredibly costly, and the final one essentially ended Wisconsin’s comeback hopes. The Badgers can still win the West with their stellar defense, but they will have a hard time beating Iowa, who looked as good as ever against Indiana.

Michigan State

This year seemed like it would be another developmental season for head coach Mel Tucker. Last year, the Spartans struggled mightily on offense but did find a way to pull out two big wins, one against their in-state rival Michigan and the other to eventual Big Ten West Champ Northwestern. It also looked as though Northwestern would have revenge on their minds heading into Friday night, but that look was deceiving. The Spartans rolled up over 300 yards on the ground, led by Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III and his 264 yards. The ground game was impressive, and it looks like Mel Tucker has his rebuilt Spartans ahead of schedule.


The Gophers battled Ohio State tough on Thursday night, but ultimately, the Buckeyes prevailed. The reason they made it into the weekend breakdown here is because we now have confirmation that Mohamed Ibrahim will be lost for the season with a leg injury. Minnesota might be the second-best team in the West behind Iowa, but this a serious blow to their offense. Time for Tanner Morgan to shoulder more of the load.