Early Evals: Who's Hitting and Who's Missing Thus Far in the Big Ten?

By Andrew Ellis on September 18, 2019 at 8:35 am
Justin Fields and Shea Patterson are off to vastly different starts this season.
Joe Maiorana/Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It may be difficult to believe, but we are already about a quarter of the way through the 2019 regular season. The Buckeyes and a few other Big Ten teams have gotten into conference play already, but the heart of the schedule really kicks off later this month and into the winter. 

While last weekend wasn't the best effort across the Midwest, most seem to have the Big Ten and the SEC leading the way in the conference power rankings. The Big Ten has five teams in the Top-25 while the SEC has six; including three – Alabama, Georgia, and LSU – in the top five. The SEC may be stronger at the top but an argument can be made that the Big Ten is better from top to bottom. 

Heading into the season there were a number of key storylines in the conference. With the conference landscape starting to come together, we look at some of the hits and misses from across the Big Ten.

The Big Ten's Hits

Justin Fields & the Ohio State Offense

Ohio State's quarterback situation was one of the top storylines of the offseason. From Justin Fields' move to Columbus to Tate Martell's words and eventual transfer, Buckeye signal-callers were a hot topic. 

While Ohio State hasn't faced a murderers' row quite yet, Ryan Day's offense is averaging about 500 yards and 46 points per game. Fields has been pretty precise as a passer and has done some damage with his legs as well. J.K. Dobbins seems to have found his old form and the Buckeye offensive line has been solid up front. Brian Hartline's unit is also excelling despite losing three key seniors from 2018. 

Fields has sailed a few passes across the middle, but he's completing 70 percent of his attempts and has accounted for 13 touchdowns in just three games. An upcoming month-long stretch is going to tell us a lot more about the sophomore and the Buckeye offense as a whole. Following Saturday's game against Miami, Ohio State will face Nebraska, Michigan State, Northwestern, and Wisconsin.

The Resurgent Silver Bullets

A mere mention of the 2018 defense is enough to send chills down one's spine. We've seen nothing even remotely similar thus far in 2019. Ohio State has the country's No. 12 total defense and is fourth in America against the rush. Again, you have to consider the competition, but Jeff Hafley, Larry Johnson, and the rest of the staff deserve a ton of kudos for what they've assembled. 

Chase Young continues to look like the best defensive player in the country and he's on track to break Ohio State's single-season sack record. Vernon Gholson recorded 14 back in 2007. Young has five thus far through three games. Jeffrey Okudah and Damon Arnette have been locking down wideouts and Al Washington and Greg Mattison have the linebackers playing at a high level as well. 

A Balanced Attack In Madison 

When one thinks about Wisconsin, a strong offensive line and powerful running game immediately come to mind. That's still the case in 2019, but Paul Chryst has been throwing the ball around a bit through two games. We'll learn a heck of a lot more this weekend against the Wolverines, but Jack Coan is looking more comfortable under center than Alex Hornibrook ever did. 

Through the first two of games of 2018, Hornibrook completed a total of 25 passes against Western Kentucky and New Mexico. This year the Badgers kicked things off in Tampa against South Florida and then at home against Central Michigan. In the first two games, Coan has completed 45 of 59 attempts for 564 yards with five touchdowns and zero turnovers. 

Even more terrifying is the thought of Jonathan Taylor being involved in the passing game. The Heisman candidate caught eight passes for 60 yards and no scores as a sophomore. He's already caught five for 65 and three scores in his third season. 

Fresh Faces in Happy Valley

Penn State running backs have fared well lately in the NFL Draft with Saquon Barkley already one of the league's top players and Miles Sanders being selected in the second round this year. It's not a surprise that a number of talented backs are interested in what James Franklin is doing, and the Nittany Lions signed a pair of top Buckeye targets for the Class of 2019.

Ricky Slade was expected to be the lead back, but he's off to a rough start with just 21 yards on 12 carries and fumbling the football continues to be a problem. Three different tailbacks have more carries than Slade, and that includes a pair of true freshmen in Devyn Ford and Noah Cain. A familiar duo if you're someone who follows Buckeye recruiting.

Ford has dashed for 117 yards and two scores on 12 carries. Cain has added 86 yards and already scored four touchdowns on the young season. The PSU backfield utilizes about four different guys – including the team's leading rusher Journey Brown – but the youngsters are off to a hot start. 

The Big Ten's Misses

Josh Gattis and the "Revitalized" Michigan Offense

The Josh Gattis hire didn't come without its questions as the former Penn State and Alabama assistant came to Ann Arbor having never called plays before. Still, the expectation was for more of modern offense and less of the stale, boring stuff we've seen under Jim Harbaugh. The early returns have not been favorable. 

There's no real shortage of talent on the offensive side of the ball, but Shea Patterson hasn't come close to reaching the supposed Heisman potential. The Wolverine offense is ranked No. 79 in the country, one spot ahead of the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. Patterson has lost three fumbles so far against Middle Tennessee State and in the overtime win over Army.

There are now more questions than answers when it comes to the Wolverine offense and things aren't getting easier this weekend against the nation's No. 1 defense in Madison. I suppose true freshman tailback Zach Charbonnet and his three scores have been a bright spot, but 191 yards on 41 carries isn't anything to write home about. Gattis and the offense will need to find some rhythm to have any chance in the East Division. 

Frost's Supposed Control of the West

Nebraska wasn't a unanimous favorite to win the West Division, but many felt the Huskers would do just that in year two under Scott Frost. Don't get me wrong, this is very much still a possibility, but things haven't been going according to plan thus far in Lincoln. 

Adrian Martinez burst onto the scene as a true freshman and came into this season as a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy. So far in 2019, the Husker offense just hasn't taken off like many expected it would. Nebraska struggled against South Alabama in the opener when it failed to reach 300 yards of total offense. Martinez then had three turnovers in the road loss to Colorado. 

Nebraska had a bounce-back performance in last week's 44-8 win over Northern Illinois, but that schedule is only getting tougher from here on out. Martinez averaged nearly five yards per carry as a true freshman. His average through the first three games is just 2.7 per attempt. 

The Hunter Johnson Effect

Most assumed Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson was going to be the guy in Evanston this year. The former five-star sat out the 2018 season due to NCAA transfer rules and seemed poised to take over following Clayton Thorson's departure. A lot of folks (myself included) scoffed at Pat Fitzgerald's comments about a serious quarterback battle leading up to the opener. A lot of folks turned out to be dead wrong. 

It was absolutely a battle between Johnson and T.J. Green, but the transfer did take the opening snap against Northwestern. His second pass attempt as a Wildcat was picked off in a game that saw Fitzgerald's crew fall on the road against a Stanford team that doesn't appear to be all that good. 

Johnson threw for just three yards on his first three series before Green was brought in for action. He fared slightly better before suffering a foot injury that now has him sidelined for the rest of the season. Now with two games under his belt, Johnson has completed less than 43 percent of his passes while throwing for one touchdown and three interceptions.

Penalties a Problem in East Lansing

Coming into the season, the top Michigan State storyline was Brian Lewerke's health and how the senior would bounce back after an injury-plagued 2018 season. Truth be told, Lewerke has been pretty good thus far as he's thrown for about 800 yards with four touchdowns and just one interception. 

The Spartans struggled to stop a 175-pound true freshman on a 4th and 13 last week as the Jayden Daniels' scamper was the biggest play of the game. The other big play came via a Spartan penalty that negated a game-tying field goal as time expired. Matt Coghlin's next attempt was a total dud that led to Mark Dantonio's first loss of the young season. 

Michigan State is ranked No. 118 in America when it comes to penalty yards. The Spartans have been hit with 26 penalties for 233 yards through just three games. They were penalized 10 times for 91 yards on Saturday night with none being bigger than the one that cost them a shot in overtime against the Sun Devils. 

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