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Saturday, June 22, 2024
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Column: Honest observations and takeaways from the first week of Big Ten action

Every Big Ten team has now played at least one game. It is the perfect time to spew overreactions and unrealistic expectations that will turn out to be wrong.

Once the first week of football is over, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. Every team is either overrated or underrated. We adjust our opinions — and emotions — based on such little evidence. 

However, there were still plenty of notable moments and valid reasons for fans to either be ecstatic or anxious. Here are my takeaways on some of those moments from the first week of Big Ten play.

Wisconsin looked great. I’m still terrified. 

The Wisconsin Badgers won in electric fashion, but I’m still incredibly concerned.

In the end, the result was a 38-0 victory over the Illinois State Redbirds. The Camp Randall crowd rarely sees scoring barrages like that of Saturday night. Safety John Torchio ran back a 100 yard pick-six, a Wisconsin record. Running back Braelon Allen pulled off a 96-yard run — also a Badger record. The offense was consistent and unpredictable. The positive energy in Camp Randall was palpable. 

I wish I was as excited as most Wisconsin fans, but I don’t feel any better than I did before the game. What did we learn about the Badgers? Allen played well, like he always does. The run defense was great, like it always is. The Badgers made mistakes, like they always do.

The mistakes lingered in my mind all week. The secondary allowed multiple deep completions against the Redbirds, breathing life into a subpar offense. It ultimately never cost the Badgers, as the Redbirds failed to score, but that won’t work against Ohio State or any quality team. Buckeye coach Ryan Day is watching those clips, giggling, excitedly waiting for Week 4. 

There were also plenty of frustrating penalties. During the Redbirds’ second drive, a 15 play drive, the offense converted on third down four separate times  — twice from penalties and the other two coming from faulty Wisconsin pass defense. It is a nitpick, but these types of sloppy habits will be exploited by the Badgers’ best opponents.  

The major improvement compared to last season seemed to be the play of quarterback Graham Mertz. His timing and decision-making looked worlds better than last year. Mertz’s target distribution was more balanced; he didn’t force-feed any receivers the way he used to with tight end Jake Ferguson. If these improvements are at least somewhat legitimate, Mertz will be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten this year. 

Mertz fooled us once before in a Week 1 win over a far inferior opponent. I won’t let myself fall for it again — yet.

Ohio State looked mortal. I’m still terrified.

Ohio State beat Notre Dame 21-10 on Saturday night. The Buckeyes played very well but were not their usual powerhouse selves. Ohio State finished with their lowest point total in a game since 2018. I wanted to believe their preseason juggernaut status was fraudulent, that somebody else might have a chance in the Big Ten this year, but I couldn’t truthfully bring myself to it.

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The Buckeyes are still worthy of fear. There will still be plenty of games all season where it looks like they are playing a different sport than their opponent (*shudders at the thought of September 24*). 

College football is a sport where even the matchups between the best few teams are almost always lopsided. The disparity of talent between a few elite programs and the rest of the country is staggering. Ohio State is undoubtedly one of those elite programs. Any game in which they don’t reach 30 points is breaking news.

We even expect big wins against Notre Dame, who are perennial playoff contenders and were ranked fifth on the AP poll leading into the matchup. The closing point spread favored Ohio State by over two touchdowns.

The Buckeyes’ offensive woes were not for no reason. They lost star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba during the second drive to a hamstring injury. Smith-Njigba is arguably the second most valuable Buckeye behind Stroud. His absence completely shifted the game plan. 

In the post game press conference, Stroud explained losing his trusted teammate meant “taking fewer shots” down the field. 

“It skewed our game plan a little bit,” the quarterback commented

Smith-Njigba’s injury doesn’t appear to be severe. He may only miss a game or two, none too important. 

Ohio State's next opponent will be Arkansas State, members of the mighty Sun Belt Conference. Maybe the Buckeyes will only score 50 instead of 70.

Who’s playing QB for Michigan?

The Michigan Wolverines beat the Colorado State Rams by a dazzling 51-7 score. However, the game itself felt secondary to the ongoing quarterback competition attention-wise.

In late August, head coach Jim Harbaugh announced the ongoing quarterback battle between Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy would carry into the regular season — McNamara would start Week 1 and McCarthy in Week 2. 

Is this a Harbaugh power trip? Could a coach without Harbaugh’s resume make a decision as unorthodox as this?  

It seems vital for the sport’s most essential position to build as much experience as possible with his teammates, especially if they have the opportunity for a championship run. Michigan is a championship contending team that measures themselves against the best of the country. Most of all the other best teams in the country already have their quarterback situation figured out. 

This isn’t the same as a competition for any other position. Quarterbacks are the leaders of the offense. It’s harder for offensive players to establish trust with their quarterback if they don’t know who the quarterback is.

Despite the staggering final score, McNamara only looked okay. He completed nine of his 18 passes and was quite prone to mistakes. The other Wolverine quarterback, McCarthy, was encouraging in his limited snaps. He was even responsible for one of Michigan’s four rushing touchdowns. 

I believe Harbaugh and the rest of the Wolverines prefer McCarthy, but McNamara is older and led Michigan to their first playoff appearance last season. Maybe they feel they owe him. 

Do what you want to do, Harbaugh. Start the better quarterback. Start J.J. We will have an opportunity to see McCarthy in a full start this Saturday night against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. 

Michigan is still a great team. They’ll likely win ten games or more. But, as previously mentioned, the Wolverines view themselves as a championship team. This is the kind of conflict that keeps a team from winning a championship.

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Donnie Slusher

Donnie Slusher is the sports editor for the Daily Cardinal. He has written multiple breaking news stories, sports columns and an in-depth examination of race in Wisconsin football. Follow Donnie on Twitter at @DonnieSlusher_

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