Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State give the Big Ten three top-10 teams at the halfway point of the season, and all of them have their sights set on ending the conference’s two-year drought in the College Football Playoff.
The No. 4 Buckeyes and No. 6 Badgers have been particularly impressive. Ohio State has the biggest collection of individual talent and has yet to be challenged. Wisconsin has used a collective effort to post four shutouts and, in the process, put up some of the most impressive defensive numbers in years.
The biggest games are still to be played. Ohio State must face Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. The Badgers, in addition to Ohio State, have key divisional games coming against Iowa and upstart Minnesota.
No. 7 Penn State, which cleared its first big hurdle at Iowa last week, plays Michigan at home this week and Minnesota before taking on the Buckeyes.
Based on observations of Associated Press sports writers covering Big Ten teams, here’s a look at some of the highs and lows of the season’s first half:
COACH OF THE FIRST HALF
Ryan Day, Ohio State
With Day taking over for Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes were thought to be on the cusp of ceding control of the Big Ten East. Hardly. Day has the Buckeyes looking better than they have since Meyer’s 2014 national championship season and in strong position for the playoff. All this has happened in a year the offense was supposed to take a step back with the loss of seven starters. It hasn’t. Ohio State has won all six of its games by no fewer than 24 points. Day gets the nod over Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE FIRST HALF
Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor
The junior is in his third year as the Badgers’ most dangerous player and is showing no signs of slowing down. Taylor leads the nation with 18 touchdowns and, with 137.5 yards per game, is engaged in a close battle with Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins for the Big Ten rushing lead. Taylor has played an expanded role as a receiver this season. He has 15 catches after totaling 16 in his first two seasons.
No one has come up with a blocking scheme to combat Young’s mix of speed and power. He’s bidding to be the No. 1 overall draft pick with 8.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. He is on an eight-game sack streak and has a nation-leading 19 since the start of the 2018 season. Wisconsin LB Zack Baun also merits mention for his career-high six sacks and 10.5 TFLs and an interception return for a touchdown.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Nebraska WR-RB Wan’Dale Robinson
Robinson is among a bunch of talented freshmen in the conference and gets a slight edge over Penn State RB Noah Cain and Purdue WR David Bell because of his value to an otherwise struggling offense. He had a monster second half as the primary running back in a come-from-behind win over Illinois, made a huge catch to set up the winning field goal against Northwestern, and he’s first among Big Ten freshmen in all-purpose yards.
The Gophers are capitalizing on a favorable schedule in Fleck’s third season and are 6-0 for the first time since 2003. They won their first four games by a combined 20 points and then hammered Illinois and Nebraska by a total of 50. Led by quarterback Tanner Morgan, a deep stable of running backs, standout receivers and a solid defense, they very well could be 8-0 for the first time since 1948-49 when they Penn State on Nov. 9.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER
Wisconsin LB Chris Orr
The senior was sensational as a freshman but a torn ACL and difficulty getting on the field because of a wealth of talent at linebacker kept him under the radar. He came into this season off a standout bowl performance against Miami and has become a central figure for the most dominant defense in the nation. He’s the team’s second-leading tackler, recorded sacks in three straight games and has five sacks and six hurries for the season.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM
The Cornhuskers edge out Northwestern here. The Wildcats (1-4, 0-3) lost their four-year starting quarterback, and nobody outside Chicago expected them to repeat the 2018 run that led to their first West title. Nebraska (4-3, 2-2), on the other hand, was picked to win the West even though it won only four games in Scott Frost’s first year. QB Adrian Martinez, so good as a freshman that he showed up on preseason Heisman Trophy candidate lists, and the running game have underperformed behind a poor offensive line. The defense is giving up 33 points per game against Big Ten opponents.
Lovie Smith, Illinois
This would seem to be the make-or-break year for Smith, who is 11-31 overall and 4-26 in Big Ten games in his fourth season. The Illini (2-4, 0-3) have finished no higher than sixth in the West under Smith and are trending in the same direction. Smith would have been owed $12 million if he had been let go after last season. That figure is down to a more manageable $4 million now.
Purdue WR Rondale Moore
He was the first freshman in Big Ten history to be a consensus first-team All-American, and he was averaging 7.3 receptions per game when he sustained a lower leg injury against Minnesota. He’ll miss his third straight game this week and there’s no timetable for his return. Moore’s absence is a double whammy for the Boilermakers. QB Elijah Sindelar also was injured against Minnesota and won’t be back until late in the season, if at all.
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