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Conference Corner: Ohio State’s broken defense may cost it Big Ten title

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Weeks of defensive struggles for Ohio State culminated in an embarrassing display in West Lafayette Saturday.

Ohio State v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Ohio State showed several signs a defensive collapse was imminent. Some even predicted the weekend’s struggles against the Boilermakers.

With the Buckeye’s 49-20 defeat to Purdue Saturday in West Lafayette, Greg Schiano’s defense has crumbled on the road in the Big Ten West for the second straight season.

In 2017, Iowa laid a 55-point whooping on them at Kinnick. In some ways, Saturday was a touch less ridiculous.

Kirk Ferentz rarely trots out as prolific an offense as Jeff Brohm’s current unit. The Boilermakers rank No. 10 in offensive S&P after this weekend’s performance. David Blough leads the attack with 2,073 passing yards — seven more than Heisman favorite Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama.

Saturday would’ve been an understandable outlier against a productive offense...if it was the only struggle so far in 2018. Ohio State (7-1, 4-1):

  • Let Pac-12 doormat Oregon State rack up 31 points in the opener, including two touchdown runs of 78 and 80 yards. The Beavers barely crack the top-50 in S&P offense.
  • Ceded 511 total yards to the No. 92 unit in TCU, as Shawn Robinson tossed for 308 yards.
  • Allowed 461 combined yards to Trace McSorley, including 175 yards on the ground.
  • Saw Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey — quarterback of Mike Debord’s No. 79 offense — compile 322 yards and three scores.

In addition, Urban Meyer’s latest outfit battled with 3-4 Minnesota for all four quarters a week ago. Through eight games, there’s enough evidence to say Schiano is not connecting with his Silver Bullets.

Whatever the problem is — lack of fire from an increasingly tired-looking Meyer, too many cooks in the kitchen between Schiano and co-coordinator Alex Grinch, no more Bosas, etc. — the stats are clear:

The last Scarlet and Gray defense to finish outside the top-15 was in 2013 (No. 44). This year’s unit ranks No. 49.

With a month before an ascending Michigan team comes to Columbus, how are these defensive questions going to be addressed? Without satisfying answers, the defending Big Ten champions will be sitting at home on Dec. 1.

Ohio State is on bye next week.


After dropping a 20-19 squeaker to Eastern Michigan, Brohm inserted Blough at quarterback to replace an ineffective — and injuredElijah Sindelar.

Even in a 40-37 loss to Missouri, he locked down the starting spot with 572 passing yards against the Tigers.

If you set a conference total yards record, you tend to remain the starter. The Boilermakers (4-3, 3-1) haven’t looked back.

They bullied A.J. Dillon and No. 23 Boston College 30-13 to gain their first win of the season. Next, two 40-point outbursts bested conference bottom-dwellers Nebraska and Illinois, setting up Saturday’s breakthrough versus Ohio State.

Leading receiver Rondale Moore went from promising freshman to conference star against the Buckeyes. He snared 12 balls for 170 yards through the air, adding 24 more on the ground. His final touchdown is one of the nation’s finest in 2018.

With 57 catches for 728 yards and seven scores, he leads the conference and has worked his way into the top-10 nationally.

Top-20 squads in Iowa and Wisconsin visit Ross-Ade Stadium down the stretch. It’s impossible now to count out Purdue in the divisional race.

Next game for Purdue at Michigan State (Noon, ESPN)

RECAPS

NO. 18 PENN STATE 33, INDIANA 28

The good news for the Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-2)? They snapped a two-game losing streak with the victory in Bloomington.

The bad news? Their offense is far too reliant on Trace McSorley.

The senior connected on 19-of-36 throws for 220 yards and a pick, while chipping in 19 totes for 107 yards. His game-by-game rushing attempts the last month:

  • 15 vs. Illinois, 25 vs. OSU, 13 vs. MSU and 19 vs. Indiana.

Compare that to 2012 Denard Robinson the month before getting injured against Nebraska:

  • 26 vs. Notre Dame, 24 vs. Purdue, 11 vs. Illinois and 20 vs. MSU.

Point being, James Franklin’s over-reliance on his signal-caller is not only a health risk. Without McSorley, this offense likely falls apart.

For Indiana (4-4, 1-4), running back Stevie Scott is back on track. After a month with no game over 64 yards, he erupted for 138 on 26 rushes. He reached the end zone twice to stake the Hoosiers to a 21-20 lead in the third quarter.

Head coach Tom Allen tried to catalyze the offense behind center, rotating Ramsey with freshman Michael Penix, Jr. Despite both contributing to a 554-yard day, the offense needed a program-record 100 plays to get there.

In a familiar pattern, Indiana left points on the field in a big game. Down 17-14 just before halftime, Penix led the Hoosiers to the Penn State 10-yard line. On fourth-and-one, he miscommunicated with Nick Westbrook on a screen for an incompletion to relinquish possession.

In a one-score game, that sequence loomed large. Also, J-Shun Harris muffed a punt at his own 30, gifting a short touchdown drive to stretch the PSU lead to 33-21.

Two more turnovers stunted a comeback, though a late onside kick recovery momentarily provided life. A holding penalty and a sack snuffed the light from the candle.

Now, Allen needs two wins in the final four games to qualify for a bowl. Those teams have a combined record of 17-11.

Next game for Penn State against No. 18 Iowa (3:30 p.m., ESPN)

Next game for Indiana Friday at Minnesota (8 p.m., FS1)

NO. 19 IOWA 23, MARYLAND 0

The Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1) rode their top-10 S&P defense to a stifling shutout of Maryland (4-3, 2-2) in Iowa City.

The Terrapins mustered just 115 total yards, including just 47 passing from Kasim Hill. No one ran for more than 16 yards, as Javion Leake reached that on his lone carry.

Meanwhile, Kirk Ferentz leaned on his own ground attack, squeezing out 224 yards on 52 attempts. Ivory Kelly-Martin led the charge with 98 yards on 24 totes.

Another way to look at the score? Iowa’s offense beat their defense 16-7, as Anthony Nelson recovered a third-quarter fumble in the end zone to finish scoring.

The Hawkeyes now hit a suddenly daunting road trek, as they head to Happy Valley and West Lafayette in consecutive weeks.

For interim coach Matt Canada, his team returns home for a breather against Lovie Smith and Illinois. With a probable triumph there, he needs one more between MSU, at Indiana, OSU and at PSU to secure a bowl bid.

Next game for Iowa at No. 17 PSU (3:30 p.m., ESPN)

Next game for Maryland against Illinois (3:30 p.m., BTN)

NO. 23 WISCONSIN 49, ILLINOIS 20

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

For Chicago Bears fans, the sight was likely familiar. Lovie Smith helming an orange and blue program under several warm layers in the midst of a snow flurry.

Unfortunately for the bearded one, Brian Urlacher wasn’t playing defense for him Saturday in Madison. Nor was former Illini and Bears great Dick Butkus.

Instead, Illinois (3-4, 1-3) surrendered 357 yards rushing to the Badgers (5-2, 3-1). Both Jonathan Taylor and Taiwan Deal eclipsed the century mark — the former for the eighth straight time.

The Illini can at least hang their hat on their run game, which ranks No. 13 in efficiency. Reggie Corbin took nine carries to reach 100 yards, sparking a total of 210 on the afternoon.

Smith needs three wins in five games to qualify for a bowl. Minnesota and Nebraska are opportunities down the line, but a .500 record is a tall order for such an inconsistent squad.

For Paul Chryst and Wisconsin, the bitter taste of the Michigan rout is in the past. It better be, because a potential divisional elimination game takes place in Evanston next weekend.

Northwestern and Wisconsin have split the last four meetings.

Next game for Wisconsin at Northwestern (Noon, FOX)

Next game for Illinois at Maryland (3:30 p.m., BTN)

NORTHWESTERN 18, RUTGERS 15

The Wildcats (4-3, 4-1) somehow overcame the Scarlet Knights (1-7, 0-5) in Piscataway, despite 3.4 yards a play.

After weeks of Air Raid football in the Windy City, Clayton Thorson only attempted 34 passes. He combined for 111 tosses the last two games versus Nebraska and MSU.

Instead, Isaiah Bowser shouldered the offensive load with 24 carries for 108 yards. His second touchdown of the day put Pat Fitzgerald’s ‘Cats up for good.

For Chris Ash, he just can’t find consistency out of freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski. He has five times more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (three), and only three games where he finished with a plus-50-percent completion rate.

Despite that, Rutger led 15-7 five minutes into the second half. For the second straight game, though, Northwestern fought back to top an inferior foe.

The Wildcats have a legitimate chance to reach Indianapolis. They hold the tiebreaker over Purdue after a 31-27 road victory in the opener. Also, they catch wounded Wisconsin at home this weekend.

Win, and they eliminate the divisional gorilla in Madison. With the near brain fart in New Jersey, though, every week provides tension for purple fans.

Next game for Northwestern against No. 20 Wisconsin (Noon, FOX)

Rutgers on bye next week

NEBRASKA 53, MINNESOTA 28

The losing streak ends at 10 for the Cornhuskers (1-6, 1-4).

Since the Big Red bloodletting against Michigan in the Big House, Scott Frost’s offense is quietly one of the most productive in the conference. After 659 total yards against Minnesota (3-4, 0-4), it’s averaged 560 a game.

Unlike those previous matchups, the yards finally yielded points. Devine Ozigbo, Adrian Martinez and Maurice Washington combined for four touchdowns on the ground, spearheading a 383-yard effort on the day.

Martinez added 276 through the air, recording a near perfect QBR after only misfiring four times on 29 throws.

With essentially a bye week against Bethune-Cookman, Frost gets to fine-tune his burgeoning machine before visiting Columbus on Nov. 3.

As long as the Buckeye shortcomings persist on defense, the ‘Huskers have a chance to make a statement on offense in two weeks. It just won’t be enough to win.

P.J. Fleck warned media this offseason that his young team needed time to gel. After an encouraging 3-0 start, and moments against top teams such as Ohio State, Saturday in Lincoln demonstrated the long journey ahead in Minneapolis.

Next game for Nebraska against Bethune-Cookman (Noon, BTN)

Next game for Minnesota Friday against Indiana (8 p.m., FS1)