Welcome to the first week of a full slate of Big Ten action. With five conference games this weekend, the Big Ten schedule promises to deliver some compelling action, starting with some Friday night football featuring Illinois hosting Nebraska.
Every week in the Big Ten conference season, I will be featuring a list of three players I love and expect to do better than expected, while also focusing on three players I expect to struggle — my hate list. The goal is to get Illini fans some information about other top performers in the conference that they may not know a lot about.
Now, onto the list.
Players I love:
Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State: I know it is easy to list Barkley pretty much every week. His numbers are almost other worldly, and he seems like he cannot be stopped, no matter who is opposing him. Barkley already has 853 total yards and six touchdowns, and he’s a man-beast. The reason you have to love Saquon this weekend is the run defense of Indiana, or more importantly, the lack thereof. In its last game, Indiana gave up 242 yards on the ground to Georgia Southern, perhaps showing weakness in their front line. Could Barkley continue his dominance into the Big Ten season is the current question? The Heisman hopeful should combine for at least 200 yards combined and a couple touchdowns against the still-rebuilding Hoosiers.
Mike Dudek, WR, Illinois: Obligatory Illinois pick here. Dudek has been quietly getting his legs back this season, and this weekend should not be any different. Nebraska is allowing over 250 yards per game allowed in the air. If you remove the NIU game, they have given up 390 yards per game. I have to imagine the Illini passing game and receivers are better than NIU, so this could be a coming out of sorts for Dudek and the Illinois offense. Expect the Illini to test the Huskers secondary early and often Friday under the lights.
Conor Rhoda, QB, Minnesota: Conor Rhoda has not thrown the ball a lot this early in the 2017 season, but his arm has shown just what he is capable of. With just under 500 yards in their first three games, Rhoda has shown the ability to look at what he is facing and find the right receivers in the passing game but has also been smart enough to rely on the running game when needed. Rhoda will be facing a Maryland secondary that has given up five touchdowns in the air already this season.
Players I hate:
Nathan Stanley, QB, Iowa: The Spartans may not be what they used to be, but the passing defense is one bright spot on this squad. The Spartans have yet to allow a 200-yard passer and are conceding just over 130 passing yards per game. With two interceptions this season, Michigan State will look to add to its total this weekend in what may be a low-scoring, defensive-minded game.
Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern: Coming into the 2017 season, Jackson was expected to be one of the top pass catchers out of the backfield in the Big Ten, but so far he has been quiet, hauling in just nine receptions for 87 yards. Jackson has rushed the ball well enough, but Northwestern needs his involved in the passing game; his talent is too immense to simply line up in the backfield. This weekend, he will be going up against a Wisconsin pass defense that has hauled in five interceptions and limited their opposition to 157 passing yards per game. The Wisconsin defense is still one of the best in the Big Ten and will look to shut down the Northwestern passing game, as it has other offenses’ this season.
Tanner Lee, QB, Nebraska: Could Nebraska be just what the doctor ordered for the Illini? Coming into Champaign, Tanner Lee has already thrown nine interceptions in his last three games against lesser opponents than he will face in Big Ten play. The Illinois secondary has shown the ability to get to the ball when it is in the air, logging three interceptions, including a pick six, in non-conference play. The Fighting Illini will look to continue that trend against a quarterback who has been unreliable thus far in 2017.
Think I’m right? Wrong? Let me know in the comments below!