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Thursday Morning Brews: A Wild Week 1

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was exciting. I think I lost all my hair; not a good sign considering the high-pressure games haven’t even happened yet for Michigan.

Okay, on to the Big Ten:

No Clarity In The West

Not many people saw a 16-13 Wisconsin win coming against LSU - but it happened, and now Michigan’s Week 5 showdown with Wisconsin takes on a little more dimension. I’m not what you’d call ‘worried’ about the Badgers - ‘nervously intrigued,’ probably, so long as Michigan can find a few big plays through the air. And the Wolverines need to get their O-line together.

The Badgers were helped by luck, good special teams and field position, and an ability to not blink with the game on the line. We’ll see how much that helps them once they start conference play in a few weeks with MSU in East Lansing and U-M in Ann Arbor.

Links: Behind The Box Score: Wisconsin vs. LSU

But the Red & Whites (well, that doesn’t narrow it down a whole lot) weren’t the only team that showed the West should be taken seriously. Iowa went into 2016 with major concerns at wide receiver, and also needed to replace a couple All-Big Ten offensive linemen and one of the better under-the-radar linebackers in the conference, Cole Fisher. After a magical run in 2015, ‘luck’ was also a concern.

While the wideouts didn’t show much in the Hawkeyes’ season-opening win against Miami (Ohio), the team looked great everywhere else, and they can lean on at least one reliable receiving threat in Matt VandeBerg to pull the weight while the young guys settle in. Wide receivers not named VandeBerg had 5 catches, 71 yards on the day, while VandeBerg got 4 for 99.

The rest of the team took its cue from a road-grading offense and a stout, fast defense at every level - an old, tried-and-true formula to win some ballgames. Michigan heads to Iowa City November 12th, in what already looks like a fun matchup.

Links: Greg Mabin, The Best Corner No One Knows About

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Iowa
Akrum Wadley has bulked up, and now complements his spin moves and elusiveness with power to match. 12 carries, 121 yards against Miami (Ohio), including this run on one shoe.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, Nebraska looked good en route to a 43-10 win over Fresno State, in a game Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union attended. Wade and Union were two of the many on hand to watch one of the better moments in sports this year, the touching on-field tribute to Sam Foltz.

Links: Reax From Nebraska’s First Game | Report Card

A few teams that didn’t look too good were Northwestern - who were defeated by Western Michigan, 22-21 - Illinois, and Purdue. For Purdue, the offensive line and running back Markell Jones offered one of the few bright spots. For Northwestern and UI, the line play proved to be their biggest undoing.

I would actually put Northwestern firmly behind Illinois after Week 1; the Cats’ offense looked anemic at every offensive position, while the Illini were at least prepared and methodical in working around a sieve of an OL. The real test comes in Week 2, though, and we’ll see what Lovie’s squad is made of.

Meet The Riverboat Gambler

Was Minnesota’s 30-23 win over Oregon State pretty? No, honestly it wasn’t, although that was a bit of a theme throughout the whole slate of Week 1 games. There were three targeting penalties by the Gophers in this one, and another by Oregon State in the waning seconds that ended any hope of a last-second comeback. The two teams combined for 2.95 yards a carry and three lost fumbles. So no, it wasn’t exactly great.

But there were some interesting developments. Rodney Smith was outstanding. Cornerback Jalen Myrick showed explosive kick return ability, while the front seven and the tight ends looked more than capable. The secondary, receivers, and the offensive line - bolstered by two JUCO transfers - could use some work.

And I didn’t expect to say this, but quarterback Mitch Leidner somehow, almost, at times, looked like an NFL prospect. Granted, there was also some very sloppy timing or route running on a number of throws, and a couple muffed shotgun snaps by the center, so it was not a great night overall.

Leidner went just 13 for 26 on the night, but it felt like the coaching staff was going heavy on game reps and throwing in the whole kitchen sink so that he and his receivers can catch a rhythm as the year drags on. Leidner’s comfort zone felt solid and he showed poise and polish when everyone was on the same page. I was impressed, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he turns some of that ability into attractive stat lines later in the year.

Oregon State v Minnesota
Sophomore Rodney Smith took over the game for Minnesota, showing strength and agility while running for 125 yards and 2 scores. This was a beautiful touchdown run in the fourth.

The big news, though, wasn’t the growth of Leidner into a bona fide QB or Rodney Smith’s emergence as one of the conference’s top running backs. It was how the game ended from a strategic standpoint.

Minnesota scored late in the fourth to push a 24-23 lead to 30-23. With a chance for an extra point, and an eight-point advantage, Claeys opted to go for two - and didn’t get it. This caused a minor maelstrom.

“I just believe in that - at the end of the game, you’re up by seven, you go for 2 and then you’re up by two scores if you make it,” Claeys said afterward. “If you don’t (and) the other team goes and scores, I still think they’ll kick it most of the time.”

Tracy Claeys hasn’t exactly engendered a lot of trust with his late-game management; after all, he squandered an opportunity in the final seconds to win against Michigan last year. But the logic here seemed pretty sound, or at least more sound than one might guess from all the backlash.

Ultimately, though, putting aside all of the drama surrounding Claeys’ clock management, this was a stepping stone game. And it was a largely encouraging outing for a potential challenger in the West.

Links: Here’s a more thorough breakdown of that fourth quarter decision, by The Big Lead.

The Return of #TeamChaos

Indiana v Florida International Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

This was another one that forgot to bring ‘pretty’ to the table: Indiana’s 34-13 win over Florida International. Six Hoosiers were suspended, for one. IU’s starting quarterback, Richard Lagow, was disappointing in his first start, going 18/27 with 240 yards and one pass TD despite having one of the better receiving corps in the country. Kicker Griffin Oakes managed to miss a 25-yard field goal.

In fact, at the start of the fourth, the score was a grisly 13-12 in favor of FIU, a team ranked 113th in projected S&P+. Make no mistake, this was a rough beginning to 2016, regardless of the fact that IU managed to turn it into a blowout in the fourth quarter.

But does an opening stumble like this mean Indiana is likely to crumple against a murderous Big Ten East? Oh, no. No, no. Are you serious? This is Team Chaos we’re talking about.

Indiana v Florida International
FIU put up a good fight, but two pick-sixes and a 22-point fourth quarter gave IU the win.
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

The revelation of this game, even more than FIU sticking close with Indiana for three quarters, was a Hoosier defense doing much of the heavy lifting to pull out a win. For years, the refrain has been that Indiana would be dangerous if they could only find a competent defense to support that offense. And on Thursday, we saw signs that they may have found it.

Linebacker Tegray Scales was one of the Big Ten’s more unknown talents until he snagged an errant pass for a touchdown this week; it won’t be long before he makes some All-Big Ten accolades and maybe another kind of honor: an All-American snub at the end of the year for not being nearly as well-known as Northwestern’s Anthony Walker or UW’s Vince Biegel.

Rashard Fant was another who got a touchdown in this game, and has a high-impact season ahead of him. He’s only 5’10”, 177, but plays much bigger than that.

Indiana v Florida International Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Make no mistake, the defense played far from perfect as a collective. But they’re starting to look as athletic and engaged - and, yes, dynamic - as their counterparts on the offensive side. That spells bad news for anybody looking to walk out of this game with an easy win.

They Are Who We Thought They Were: East

What we think we know in the off-season can be wildly and entertainingly incorrect, but in the case of the Big Ten East, it was mostly spot-on across the board. Sure, there was some surprisingly sharp play from Maryland, but we’ll sadly have to get to that another time.

As for Ohio State (too athletic and too darn lucky for a painful rebuilding year), Michigan State (a bit sluggish without last year’s top talent), and Penn State (solid, and if you’re Joey Julius, very solid, but trailing Michigan and OSU in terms of athleticism) - Week 1 mostly showed us a story already written.

Links: It’s Ben Gedeon’s Show | Ohio State’s Top Playmaker

Now, it’s a matter of seeing who breaks that story first. Injuries and youth will be important forces that might drive teams ahead or behind the rest of the pack - and it’s worth pointing out that OSU and Michigan are well ahead of the curve with their young guys so far. But for Week 1, teams held serve.

Links: Ryan Bates, Penn State’s OL Gears Up For Pitt | A Natural Fit For Narduzzi

Those Terps, though. Hooo boy, they looked sharp. We’ll see what they can do in the weeks ahead.

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