Penn State fires warning shot at Michigan, Ohio State: Who’s up, down across Big Ten

Two of the Big Ten’s three elite teams faced what should have been stiff challenges in Week 4, when Penn State hosted Iowa and Ohio State visited Notre Dame, both of which were played in nationally televised time slots. 

The Nittany Lions passed their test with flying colors, and the Buckeyes survived by the skin of their teeth on a game-winning touchdown with :01 remaining.

Meanwhile, the third Big Ten behemoth — Michigan — blasted Rutgers for its fourth lopsided win in as many tries this season.

Let’s find out how everything unfolded with a new edition of the Stock Watch:


Penn State: There will be plenty of arguments in the coming weeks and months that seek to undermine the level of dominance Penn State showed in a 31-0 demolition of Iowa on Saturday, but make no mistake about it: This was a warning shot fired across the bows of both Michigan and Ohio State, because the Nittany Lions are dang good, and the Big Ten East will be a three-team race because of it. 

On a night when rain whipped and whirred through Beaver Stadium, head coach James Franklin and his team thoroughly undressed the Hawkeyes in every facet of the game. Penn State’s offense ground out 215 rushing yards and tossed four passing touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the country. Penn State’s defense embarrassed the Hawkeyes by forcing six fumbles and allowing just 76 total yards — seventy-six! — on 33 forgettable, funereal and fatalistic snaps. The Nittany Lions now lead the country in turnover margin (plus-11) and total defense (219.5 yards per game) while ranking among the top 15 nationally in scoring offense (40.5 points per game), scoring defense (8.8 points per game), time of possession (37:06 per game), red zone touchdown rate (78.3%) and opponent third-down conversations (24.5%) — just to name a few. They travel to No. 4 Ohio State in less than a month.

Mike Sainristil, DB, Michigan: Though he began his collegiate career at wide receiver, Sainristil now looks the part of an NFL defensive back partway through his second season on that side of the ball. He’s one of the most versatile chess pieces in defensive coordinator Jesse Minter’s arsenal with his snaps in 2023 split between slot corner (101), perimeter corner (22), box defender (21), free safety (three) and even defensive line (four), according to Pro Football Focus. Combined with his value on special teams, where Sainristil is a proven threat to block both kicks and punts, the overall package should prove quite enticing to scouts and front-office executives next spring. Sainristil made one of Michigan’s plays of the season during Saturday’s 31-7 win over Rutgers when he returned an interception 71 yards for a score that broke the game open late in the third quarter. His lightning-quick diagnosis of a bubble screen allowed Sainristil to beat the wide receiver to the ball and snare quarterback Gavin Wimsatt’s pass in traffic. He held on through contact, maintained his balance by putting one hand on the turf, and then outran three defenders to the end zone. It was Sainristil’s team-high second interception of the season and the third of his career.

Nebraska’s rushing attack: With the caveat that Nebraska’s opening two games against Minnesota and Colorado represented significantly tougher opponents than recent home dates with Northern Illinois and Louisiana Tech, it’s hard not to wonder if the injury to quarterback Jeff Sims was a blessing in disguise. A transfer from Georgia Tech, Sims threw four interceptions and fumbled twice in dispiriting losses to the Gophers and Buffaloes before hurting his ankle in the fourth quarter against the latter. That opened the door for sophomore Heinrich Haarberg to imprint himself on head coach Matt Rhule’s offense, and he has since led the team in rushing, with 255 combined yards and two scores over the last two weeks. He’s also completed 22 of 41 passes for 265 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions during that span. A former three-star prospect from Kearney, Nebraska, Haarberg chose the Cornhuskers over additional Power 5 offers from Boston College, North Carolina State and Vanderbilt. The one-two punch of Haarberg and tailback Anthony Grant produced 292 rushing yards and two scores in Saturday’s 28-14 win over Louisiana Tech that clawed Nebraska back to .500 on the season. They’ll face a much tougher task when hosting No. 2 Michigan next weekend.

Maryland’s defense: For the last few seasons, the identity of Maryland football has been tied to quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, a prolific passer who entered the weekend laying claim to 11 school records for everything from career passing yards (8,991) to career completion percentage (67%) and seemingly everything in between. And while Tagovailoa has turned in another strong start to 2023 with 1,112 yards and eight touchdowns in four consecutive victories, it’s Maryland’s defense that seems to be the story of the season. The Terrapins forced five turnovers in a 31-9 win over Michigan State on Saturday, turning them into 21 points courtesy of interceptions by defensive backs Beau Brade, Glendon Miller and Tarheeb Still to go along with fumble recoveries by defensive lineman Donnell Brown and linebacker Kobi Thomas. Such a flurry improved Maryland’s turnover margin to plus-eight on the season, which is tied for third nationally and second among Power 5 schools behind only Penn State. The Terrapins also rank tied for second nationally and tied for first among Power 5 schools in takeaways with 11. It’s the second time in the last three years that head coach Mike Locksley’s team is 4-0 to start the year.


Purdue’s offensive line: In what is becoming an unfortunate trend for first-year head coach Ryan Walters, the Boilermakers’ offensive line endured yet another collapse during Friday’s 38-17 shellacking against Wisconsin. The issues in the trenches were spread across the line, with left tackle Mahamane Moussa allowing five pressures, right tackle Marcus Mbow allowing three, and three more players — right guard Jalen Grant and centers Josh Kaltenberger and Gus Hartwig — allowing one apiece to send quarterback Hudson Card, who was sacked twice, scurrying for his life on seemingly every dropback. That Card still managed to gain 54 rushing yards and a touchdown on 13 carries speaks more to his ability to escape than any sort of intended offensive success. Through four games, Card has been pressured a staggering 60 times. It’s a number exceeded by just five quarterbacks nationally and only one Power 5 signal-caller: Shedeur Sanders of Colorado, who’s faced a whopping 74 pressures behind the Buffaloes’ patchwork offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus. Card is also tied for the fifth-most scrambles among Power 5 quarterbacks with 17, trailing only Brennan Armstrong of NC State (25), Garrett Shrader of Syracuse (19), Drake Maye of North Carolina (19) and Mitch Griffis of Wake Forest (18).

Minnesota: What unfolded in Evanston, Illinois, on Saturday night will surely go down as one of the worst losses in head coach P.J. Fleck’s career: a 37-34 overtime loss to lowly Northwestern in which the Gophers blew a 21-point lead. The 43-yard touchdown run from freshman Darius Taylor extended Minnesota’s advantage to 31-10 with 2:11 remaining in the third quarter before everything crumbled in jaw-dropping fashion. Fleck’s team punted on each of its next three possessions, while gaining just 52 total yards and only crossing midfield once. Northwestern responded with touchdown drives covering 75 yards, 69 yards and 80 yards to force overtime after wideout A.J. Henning — a transfer from Michigan — hauled in an 11-yard pass from quarterback Ben Bryant (33-of-49, 396 yards, four TDs) with :02 remaining. The Gophers had the ball first in overtime and settled for a 20-yard field goal after stalling at Northwestern’s 2-yard line. That’s when the Wildcats uncorked a 25-yard touchdown pass from Bryant to tight end Charlie Mangieri on their first play from scrimmage that left Fleck and Co. in disbelief. “What we do and what we rely on 99% of the time came back to bite us today,” Fleck said in his postgame news conference.

Ohio State gets boost from win over Notre Dame

Davison Igbinosun, CB, Ohio State: Igbinosun was one of the most highly coveted prospects in the transfer portal after a standout 2022 campaign for Ole Miss in which he started 10 games and earned freshman All-American honors from College Football News. He was rated the No. 13 overall transfer and the No. 4 transfer at his position by 247Sports with additional interest from the likes of Michigan, UCLA and Tennessee, among others. But things haven’t quite gone as planned for Igbinosun since joining the Buckeyes, highlighted by a disappointing showing in Saturday’s pulsating 17-14 win over Notre Dame. While no other Ohio State defender has been penalized more than once this season, Igbinosun picked up his third penalty on a holding call against wide receiver Tobias Merriweather early in the fourth quarter. Four plays later he was toasted off the line of scrimmage by wideout Rico Flores Jr. for a 2-yard touchdown that gave Notre Dame a 14-10 lead with 8:22 remaining. Igbinosun also had another potential penalty waved off by the officiating crew after he was initially flagged for a late hit out of bounds earlier in the game. Through four weeks, Igbinosun’s coverage grade of 57.7 on Pro Football Focus ranks eighth among all Buckeyes with at least 50 coverage snaps and is miles behind fellow corners Denzel Burke (83.5) and Jordan Hancock (72.5). 

Iowa’s offense: The incredible scrutiny that swirls around maligned offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, whose father, Kirk Ferentz, is Iowa’s head coach, will only intensify following an unspeakably poor performance in Saturday’s 31-0 skunking against Penn State. So putrid were the Hawkeyes, that they managed only four first downs and 76 total yards. So inept were the Hawkeyes, that quarterback Cade McNamara, who was pressured nine times and sacked three times on 17 dropbacks, completed just five passes for 42 yards. So pathetic were the Hawkeyes, that they endured a stretch of four possessions featuring gains of 0 yards, minus-6 yards, minus-3 yards and minus-6 yards, respectively. So woeful were the Hawkeyes, that they fumbled six times — losing four of them — and managed to keep the ball for just 14:33 after failing eight of nine times on third down. Any way you slice it, the events in Happy Valley constituted an abject failure for Brian Ferentz and the Iowa offense.

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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