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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Big Ten’s surprise: Iowa controls destiny in conference chase


It was less than a month ago when Iowa became the talk of the Big Ten for all the wrong reasons.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz’s team had just been pummeled, 54-10, at No. 2 Ohio State a week after enduring a different sort of pummeling in a 9-6 loss at then-unranked Illinois. The Hawkeyes owned one of the worst offenses in college football — certainly the worst of any Power 5 school — and that offense was being coordinated by Ferentz’s son, Brian. 

A contentious postgame news conference in Columbus invited national discussion about Kirk Ferentz, Brian Ferentz and nepotism throughout the sport.

From that point forward, though, all the Hawkeyes have done is string together three consecutive wins over Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin to weather the storm in the seasick Big Ten West and reclaim control of their destiny for another potential trip to the conference title game.

Who’da thunk it?

“You’ve got two choices,” Ferentz said in his weekly news conference. “You keep pushing forward or you surrender. Got 12 games scheduled, so have a bad one or a real good one, you’ve got to move on and see what you can do about the next opportunity. That’s all we’ve tried to do.”

And they’ve done it well enough to rise toward the top of the predictably unpredictable West, where four teams have identical 4-3 conference records entering the final two weeks of the regular season. If the Hawkeyes can notch victories against Minnesota this weekend and Nebraska next weekend, then they’ll be heading to the Big Ten Championship for the second consecutive year — assuming Illinois loses at No. 3 Michigan on Saturday.

“If you give up the fight, then it’s more than predictable what the outcome is going to be,” Ferentz said. “So at least you’ve got to give yourself a chance and give yourself a chance to see what you can do. And there’s not much you do in life that’s worth doing or feeling good about that you’re not going to have setbacks.”

Who will win the Big Ten West?

Joel Klatt breaks down the scenarios around five teams that can win the Big Ten West — Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

Here’s the Week 12 scouting report in the Big Ten:

The matchups

Illinois (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) at No. 3 Michigan (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten)
Game time: Noon ET
Odds: Wolverines by 17.5 (per FOX Bet, as of Thursday afternoon)

Wisconsin (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) at Nebraska (3-7, 2-5 Big Ten)
Game time: Noon ET
Odds: Badgers by 10.5

Northwestern (1-9, 1-6 Big Ten) at Purdue (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten)
Game time: Noon ET on FS1
Odds: Boilermakers by 18

Indiana (3-7, 1-6 Big Ten) at Michigan State (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten)
Game time: Noon ET on Big Ten Network
Odds: Spartans by 10

No. 2 Ohio State (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten) at Maryland (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten)
Game time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Odds: Buckeyes by 27.5

No. 11 Penn State (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) at Rutgers (4-6, 1-6 Big Ten)
Game time: 3:30 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network
Odds: Nittany Lions by 19.5

Iowa (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) at Minnesota (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten)
Game time: 4 p.m. ET on FOX
Odds: Gophers by 2.5

Game of the week: Iowa at Minnesota

The most interesting matchup, in what should be a grind-it-out affair between two of the better defensive teams in the conference, pits Minnesota tailback Mohamed Ibrahim against the vaunted Hawkeyes’ front, which ranks eighth nationally in rushing defense by surrendering just 88.6 yards per game.

Ibrahim remains one of the best players in college football with the least amount of recognition outside the Big Ten. He has more rushing yards (1,261) and more rushing touchdowns (18) than Michigan tailback Blake Corum — a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate — and Ibrahim’s streak of 18 consecutive 100-yard games is the longest in FBS since 2000. His numbers during that stretch are silly: 5.4 yards per carry on 489 attempts; 146.7 yards per game; three 200-yard games; and 36 touchdowns.

“You have to defend him every play and until the whistle blows,” Ferentz said this week. “He’s just tough, hard-nosed. He’s fast, but I don’t know if he’s like a 4.3 (40-yard dash) or anything like that. But he’s just a tough football player. I’m not saying the same as Michigan’s running back, but there’s some similarities to me. Looks like maybe there’s nothing there and next thing you know he’s got a 5-, 8-yard gain. If you don’t tackle him, get him down, he’s not quitting.”

For as stout as Iowa’s defense has been, the league’s best tailbacks have still plowed their way to successful outings in 2022. Corum carried 29 times for 133 yards and a touchdown in Michigan’s comfortable 27-14 win at Kinnick Stadium last month. And Illinois star Chase Brown, who leads the nation in rushing, gained 146 yards on 31 carries in another defeat for the Hawkeyes.

All three runners — Ibrahim, Corum and Brown — rank among the top 13 players in the country by forcing at least 55 missed tackles this season. Ibrahim leads the trio with 3.62 yards after contact per attempt, and his total of 88 first downs gained ranks second nationally behind Corum’s 91.

“Mohamed Ibrahim could go down as the greatest running back, arguably, ever at Minnesota,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said this week, “and then arguably one of the best in the Big Ten.”

Mohamed Ibrahim earns a TD hat-trick

Minnesota star Mohamed Ibrahim scores his third touchdown against Northwestern last week.

Player to watch: Iowa edge rusher Lukas Van Ness

Though he’s only a redshirt sophomore, Van Ness is viewed as a potential first-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft if he decides to leave school early. His 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame makes him an exciting prospect at edge rusher, where his strength, quickness and strong motor have served him well the last two seasons. He also has blocked multiple kicks on special teams.

Van Ness ranks second in the Big Ten in quarterback pressures with 40 after racking up five more in last week’s win over Wisconsin. It was his sixth game this season with at least four pressures and his third consecutive game with at least ½ sack. The only Big Ten players with more sacks than Van Ness (5½) are Wisconsin’s Nick Herbig (11), Michigan’s Mike Morris (7½) and fellow Hawkeye Joe Evans (6).  

The last Iowa pass rusher selected in the first round was consensus All-American Adrian Clayborn, who went 20th overall in 2011. Clayborn amassed 40 career sacks across 10 seasons in the NFL.

“Lukas Van Ness,” Ferentz said, “had a feeling he might develop into something pretty good. He’s on that path right now. So that’s the fun part.”

Unsung hero: Ohio State WR Kamryn Babb

One of the most inspiring moments in college football this season came with 8:49 remaining in a game that had been out of reach since the first quarter. That’s when Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud connected with Babb for an 8-yard touchdown in a 56-14 win over Indiana.

What seemed like an innocuous play carried immense meaning for the receiver involved. Babb was a former four-star prospect from St. Louis, rated among the top 15 wideouts in the country and the top 100 players overall in the 2018 recruiting cycle. He held scholarship offers from nearly every blue-blood program and was the highest-ranked receiver in the Buckeyes’ class.

Fast-forward to the present and Babb is a fifth-year senior whose touchdown against the Hoosiers marked his first collegiate reception in the wake of unrelenting injury problems. Babb has suffered three torn ACLs since arriving in Columbus and missed the 2018, 2019 and 2021 seasons because of them. He also tore his ACL as a high school senior before officially joining the Buckeyes.  

After securing the short pass from Stroud in the front-right corner of the end zone last Saturday, Babb climbed to his feet and hustled to an open space to celebrate. He dropped to his knees, bowed to the ground, and then blew a kiss to the sky as he uncurled. A crew of Buckeyes hovered around him, ready and waiting to share his joy.

“What happened today in this stadium was magical,” head coach Ryan Day said after the game. “That’s what college football means to a lot of people. That’s one of the reasons why college football is special. It’s one of the reasons why you coach — to see something like that happen. Hopefully, there’s somebody else out there that’s going through tough times that can see that as a motivation to overcome.”

Kamryn Babb scores first touchdown

C.J. Stroud and the Buckeyes celebrated with Kamryn Babb after the oft-injured receiver made his first collegiate reception last week.

Injury report

— Ohio State RBs Miyan Williams (leg) and TreVeyon Henderson (foot): Williams carried 15 times for 147 yards and a touchdown in the first half against Iowa before suffering an undisclosed leg injury. The news was troubling for a Buckeye team already without Henderson, who sat out last week’s game with a foot injury. Day said he hoped at least one of them will be available this weekend. 

— Michigan OLB Mike Morris (lower-body injury): Morris, who leads the Wolverines in sacks, said he suffered “a little tweak” in his lower body during last week’s victory over Nebraska after dropping out midway through the fourth quarter. In an appearance on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show earlier this week, Morris told host Jon Jansen the medical staff gave him four hours of treatment Monday morning. “I feel like I’ll be all right,” Morris said.

— Illinois RB Chase Brown (leg): Brown suffered an injury in the waning seconds of last week’s loss to Purdue. On Monday, head coach Bret Bielema told reporters Brown is trending in the right direction to play against Michigan but wasn’t certain how healthy the nation’s leading rusher will be.

— Penn State CB Joey Porter Jr. (appendicitis): Porter missed last week’s shutout win over Maryland with appendicitis, but head coach James Franklin expects his star corner to return this season. It’s unclear if Franklin was referring to the regular season or Penn State’s eventual bowl game.

Numbers game

1: The number of times Michigan has begun a season 10-0 under head coach Jim Harbaugh. This year marks the third time in the last 25 seasons that the Wolverines have won their first 10 games. The 2006 squad began 10-0 before losing to Ohio State in the finale and USC in the Rose Bowl to finish 10-2. And the 1997 squad began 10-0 en route to an undefeated season capped by a national championship.

416: The number of points scored by Ohio State in its last seven games against Maryland, all of which were victories. The Buckeyes have averaged 59.4 points per game against the Terrapins with four games of 60-plus points. This is OSU’s first trip to College Park since winning a 2018 overtime classic that finished 52-51.

0: The number of sacks allowed by Purdue’s offensive line in last week’s upset of Illinois, which entered the game with the No. 1 defense in the country. The Boilermakers are tied for eighth nationally and second in the conference in fewest tackles for loss allowed, with 38. The only Big Ten offensive line with better marks is that of Ohio State, with 37.

1,054: The number of scrimmage yards for Maryland running back Roman Hemby this season, a total that ranks second in FBS among freshmen behind Quinshon Judkins of Ole Miss (1,169 yards). Earlier this season, Hemby became the first Terrapin in 25 years to record at least 150 rushing yards and at least 50 receiving yards in the same game.

1.22: The number of sacks per game averaged by Wisconsin edge rusher Nick Herbig, which is the best in FBS this season. Herbig leads the Big Ten in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (15½), with nobody else in the conference tallying more than 7½ sacks (Michigan edge rusher Mike Morris) or 12 tackles for loss (Illinois defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton) thus far.

Read more:

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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