The regular-season game of the year in the Big Ten comes early this season. It's set for Saturday in Columbus, a colossal matchup that will provide Penn State or Ohio State with an inside track to the East Division crown, the College Football Playoff and the top spot in these power rankings.

After the top five, the rankings this week are a mess in the wake of losses by teams in the five through eight spots from last week. Northwestern fits ahead of Iowa and Purdue ahead of Minnesota because of head-to-head results.

Indiana, winless in the Big Ten, remains ahead of Nebraska and Rutgers, both of whom have won twice in league play. Why? Because we think the Hoosiers would beat them both.

1. Penn State (last week: 1): The Nittany Lions moved to 7-0, exacting revenge on Michigan with a 42-13 rout of the Wolverines before a record crowd at Beaver Stadium. Saquon Barkley raced 69 yards for a score on the second play from scrimmage. For one night, Penn State answered every question.

2. Ohio State (2): There will be doubts, despite the Buckeyes' 228 points scored in the past four weeks, about their ability to keep pace with Penn State. What an unfamiliar spot for Urban Meyer, who is 43-2 in the regular season against Big Ten competition.

3. Wisconsin (3): The Badgers haven't mathematically clinched the West Division, but they'd have to lose three times to get knocked out of the top spot. And even that may not do it. So yeah, after a 38-13 win over Maryland, it's time to make those reservations for Indianapolis.

4. Michigan State (4): The Spartans again did nothing spectacular in victory, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Indiana 17-9. The margin of victory was their largest in four Big Ten wins. Don't look now, but Mark Dantonio's team can spoil the plans of the top dogs in the East. Haven't we seen this before?

5. Michigan (5): A stout defense can only carry the Wolverines so far. Now we know how far. And it's not within three scores of Penn State, a team that Michigan beat 49-10 a year ago in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines gained just 269 yards and were outscored 28-0 after cutting the PSU lead to one point in the second quarter.

6. Northwestern (9): It's time to accept that the Wildcats are going to win games this year and just not look pretty doing it. They're above .500 for the first time since Week 3 after a 17-10 overtime win over Iowa. And with a manageable schedule ahead, Northwestern may stand pat as the second best team in the West.

7. Iowa (7): Three losses in four games have led to feelings of restlessness around the Hawkeyes. Things just aren't operating smoothly, as evidenced by a fourth-down pass that should have kept Iowa moving in OT at Northwestern. It fell to the ground, not unlike the once-high hopes for this season at Iowa.

8. Purdue (6): The Boilermakers can't yet be trusted. They outgained Rutgers 474 yards to 217, yet failed to convert a two-point conversion to tie the game in the final minute of a 14-12 loss. What a missed opportunity to ascend to the top of the Big Ten's second tier.

9. Indiana (8): Winless in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers have gotta get a break soon, right? Well, there's a trip to Maryland before Wisconsin visits Bloomington. Suddenly, after years of struggling to play defense, Indiana can't score. Such is life under a first-year coaching staff. When you patch one hole, another opens.

10. Minnesota (10): Kobe McCrary carried the Gophers to a late score and rushed 153 yards in a 24-17 win over Illinois, coach P.J. Fleck's first Big Ten victory. And it's a good thing he got it, because few chances to win, if any, as strong as Saturday remain on the schedule for Minnesota.

11. Nebraska (12): Since consecutive losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State in which the Cornhuskers allowed touchdowns on 11 straight possessions, they've welcomed a new AD who will rule on the status of coach Mike Riley after a five-game stretch that starts this week at Purdue. Talk about pressure.

12. Rutgers (13): The Scarlet Knights needed just two big plays to knock off Purdue. QB Gio Rescigno won a second straight start, marking huge progress for coach Chris Ash and his program. Nebraska owns the head-to-head edge, but Rutgers is pushing for a bigger promotion than one spot in the power rankings.

13. Maryland (11): The Terrapins stayed within two scores of Wisconsin with 10 minutes to play in Madison. But again, the QB injuries have taken a large toll. The threat of a potent passing game is gone, placing too much stress on the Terps' ground game and defense.

14. Illinois (14): The march toward a winless Big Ten season nearly veered off course as QB Jeff George Jr. managed a nice game at Minnesota. But a lack of big plays doomed the Illini, whose take an 0-4 league mark into the most treacherous portion of the schedule.video

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley has some very talented friends.

Barkley used a whitewashed stage of 110,823 -- the most to ever cram inside Beaver Stadium -- and a national, prime-time audience Saturday to quickly remind us why he’s a Heisman Trophy front-runner. Then he beckoned his buddies in blue to join him in reminding us that Penn State has the firepower and balance to take a run at a couple other trophies this winter.

Trace McSorley ran for three touchdowns, and the second-ranked Nittany Lions (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) ran away from No. 19 Michigan (5-2, 2-2) in a 42-13 display of offensive heft. The victory kicks off with a bang the three-game stretch that should provide James Franklin’s team with an opportunity to prove it deserves to be the one nipping at Alabama’s heels in the race for the College Football Playoff’s top spot.

The white-out atmosphere at Beaver Stadium recoiled like a cartoon cannon at kickoff and launched Barkley through the middle of the Michigan defense for a 69-yard score on the second play of the game. Most of Penn State’s sideline took off with him when Barkley poked his head into grassy daylight, but they weren’t going to catch him. Neither was Michigan. The Heisman candidate nearly outran himself, taking a stride to steady his balance before crossing the goal line.

Saquon BarkleyJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSaquon Barkley ran for 108 yards and two scores Saturday against Michigan and added a receiving touchdown in Penn State's romp.

Penn State nearly ran away with the whole thing just as quickly. Barkley scored again four minutes later, this time on a pitch from 15 yards away. Michigan countered with its second three-and-out, and the Nittany Lions were driving again before cornerback David Long intercepted a misfire from McSorley and gave the Wolverines their shot to get their balance.

Central Pennsylvania native John O'Korn had his finest half in a Wolverines uniform. The fifth-year senior helped the Wolverines temporarily climb back into the game by completing seven of nine passes and leading two efficient, second-quarter scoring drives.

But in less than a minute, McSorley and the rest of the Nittany Lions' offense flashed the might of their finely tuned, diverse attack. McSorley dropped passes over the heads of Michigan defenders to DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki before darting into the end zone himself.

Penn State led by a score at the half, and Michigan didn’t have the breath to play catch-up again.

By then, the offense had tossed aside some of the stingy superlatives that Michigan’s defense could boast about. The Wolverines hadn't allowed 300 total yards in a game this season. Penn State had 303 at the break. Opponents had been averaging 85.8 rushing yards per game. Barkley had 109 by himself before heading to the locker room.

The Nittany Lions cleared 500 yards of total offense by the end of game, finishing with 506. Only one other team -- the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes -- had put up 40-plus points on Michigan's formidable defense since head coach Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor. Barkley didn't need to carry the ball much in the second half, but he added a juggling, 42-yard touchdown reception in case anyone needed another reminder of his versatility.

Trips to Columbus, Ohio, and East Lansing, Michigan, are up next for the Nittany Lions. The Big Ten’s top team will have to weather on the road an Ohio State offense that is scoring at a historic clip and the surprise Spartans, as well as the accumulated wear-and-tear that comes with playing three ranked league opponents in three consecutive weeks.

Can they pack the same electric energy that filled Happy Valley this weekend? The record crowd at Beaver Stadium certainly gave this team a jolt. But Barkley and his teammates made clear Saturday night that they are an intimidating crowd all on their own.video

video Under Armour All-American Mustapha Muhammad has picked Michigan and is now the Wolverines' highest-rated 2018 commit. Read on for an inside look at the skill set of this talented tight end prospect:

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When Michigan and Penn State square off Saturday, the Wolverines will be the underdog hoping not to lose their second game of the season and a shot at a Big Ten championship berth. The roles have been reversed from the previous few years, when Michigan has bullied the Nittany Lions, winning the last three meetings, spoiling their College Football Playoff hopes, and flipping their recruits.

As the No. 2 team in the AP poll with the No. 3 recruiting class, Penn State is hoping this season is when their fortunes change against the Wolverines and coach Jim Harbaugh.

The provocation under Harbaugh started in 2015, on Nov. 21, when Michigan traveled to Happy Valley and defeated Penn State 28-16, the Nittany Lions' fourth loss of the season.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsPenn State and James Franklin have the higher-ranked team and recruiting class.

Only eight days later, defensive back Lavert Hill decommitted from Penn State, and a big part of that decision was Michigan. The Wolverines were recruiting him tenaciously, and the Detroit prospect eventually became a recruiting battle between the two schools in the last few months before signing day in February 2016.

The Nittany Lions did everything they could to get Hill back in the fold, including introducing him on the big screen at a Penn State hockey game on his official visit. It wasn’t enough, though, as Hill eventually signed with Michigan after a tug of war between the two programs.

He was one of three Penn State commits flipped by Michigan in that recruiting class, including defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour and kicker Quinn Nordin, who became well-known for his sleepover with Harbaugh on an in-home visit in January.

Michigan also landed athlete Khaleke Hudson in that class, and while he never committed to Penn State, the Nittany Lions were one of the top choices for Hudson, a Pennsylvania native.

The Wolverines finished that season with the No. 6 recruiting class and a 10-3 record, capping it off with a win in the Citrus Bowl against a ranked Florida team. Penn State had the No. 18 recruiting class and finished the season at 7-6 with a loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

For the 2017 recruiting class, Michigan also finished with the No. 6 class, while Penn State was at 17.

In the 2016 season, the Wolverines handed the Nittany Lions and coach James Franklin their second loss and were a big part of why Penn State was eventually kept out of the College Football Playoff, adding to the list of pestering by the Wolverines.

But something happened to that Penn State team after its loss to Michigan last season. After that loss, the Nittany Lions have gone on a 14-game regular season win streak and have exploded on the recruiting trail, with a five-star receiver commit in Justin Shorter and 12 total ESPN 300 commitments to go along with the No. 3 class in 2018.

“Was that loss a factor in what happened after that loss and how we moved forward, how we approached it? Yeah,” Franklin said.

“You need to be constantly learning and growing. Some moments are bigger than others, I will agree with that. But you need to constantly be learning and growing.”

Michigan has the No. 16 recruiting class and sits at No. 19 in the AP poll, as Penn State finds itself in an unfamiliar spot ahead of Michigan in recruiting and the on-field rankings.

The roles have reversed this season, and now some of those prospects Michigan flipped in the 2016 class will be tasked with stopping the Nittany Lions from dashing the Wolverines' hopes of reaching the Big Ten championship game and maybe even the CFP.

Hill will have to defend against Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley; the Nittany Lions are averaging 291.2 passing yards per game. Hudson will try to slow down electric RB Saquon Barkley, who is averaging an FBS-best 217 all-purpose yards per game. And Nordin will most assuredly be called upon in what will be a raucous night environment at Beaver Stadium.

A loss for either team would be devastating, but a win for the Nittany Lions would quickly turn them into the tormentor instead of the tormented.

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The second half of the season is underway as the Big Ten division races take shape. With sixth-ranked Ohio State and Nebraska off this week and headed in opposite directions, key games in the East and West are set for State College, Pennsylvania, and Evanston, Illinois.

Can any team stand in the way of No. 5 Wisconsin’s bid to reach the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis? It looks unlikely, but Iowa faces a must-win game at Northwestern to get back in the conversation. Same story with No. 19 Michigan, as the league’s top defense meets a huge test at second-ranked Penn State, which features and Heisman Trophy front-runner Saquon Barkley.

Visit our college football PickCenter page for additional information on these games and many more. Here’s a deeper look at the Big Ten slate for Saturday.

Iowa at Northwestern, noon ET, ESPN2

Dan Murphy: Neither of these teams has been particularly consistent this season, which makes this game a bit of a toss-up. Will Akrum Wadley or Justin Jackson have the bigger day on the ground? Northwestern's Jackson seemed to find his stride in a record-setting outing last weekend, so let's go with him and the Wildcats in a close one. Northwestern 28, Iowa 21

Mitch Sherman: What to make of the Wildcats’ apparent improvement? After two losses to superior teams, Northwestern rebounded with a nice performance at Maryland last week. Iowa is two scores from an unbeaten mark and one score from a 3-3 record. Saturday presents an opportunity for both teams to set a positive course for the final month. Iowa 30, Northwestern 21

Tom VanHaaren: I think I’m .500 picking an Iowa game this season. It has been hit-or-miss with this team and it seems this game is much of the same. You could put Northwestern in the same boat, so picking this game is tough. Northwestern is ranked 65th in offensive yards per game; Iowa is sitting at No. 100. The Wildcats' defense is ranked 59th in yards given up per game and Iowa is at No. 70. Iowa, I’m picking you, just because I think your last two losses have been close and you beat Illinois convincingly. Don’t mess this up for me. Iowa 27-21

Purdue at Rutgers, noon ET, BTN

Sherman: On the heels of a breakthrough win at Illinois, the Scarlet Knights entertain Purdue, which has experienced multiple breakthrough moments in this first season under Jeff Brohm. Despite the progress, Rutgers remains a bad offensive team -- and especially bad at throwing the ball. The Boilermakers will find more room to operate in Piscataway than last week in Madison. Purdue 31, Rutgers 17

Murphy: A year ago, this would have been a battle for the basement. But this fall, Purdue has a shot to move into a tie for second place in the Big Ten West and pick up its fourth victory of the year. As exciting as the offense has been for the Boilermakers, the strides they've taken on defense will shine brightest against Rutgers. Purdue 33, Rutgers 16

Maryland at Wisconsin, noon ET, Fox

VanHaaren: Wisconsin had a rough game against Purdue, but Maryland is just so beaten-up right now. The run attack from freshman Jonathan Taylor is going to be too much for Maryland, and Wisconsin will likely take this game. The what-ifs for this Maryland team are unfortunate, because it seemed that both Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill could lead this team at quarterback. Losing both of them is too much. Wisconsin 27, Maryland 17

Indiana at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Sherman: Welcome to the Big Ten Defensive Struggle of the Week, almost surely every Saturday to involve a team from the state of Michigan. The Hoosiers have improved dramatically at defending the pass, which isn’t the Spartans’ specialty to start with. Or is it? Brian Lewerke’s QBR ranks second in the Big Ten to J.T. Barrett. Michigan State 27, Indiana 14

VanHaaren: The Hoosiers came up short against Michigan in overtime and are probably catching the Spartans at a bad time. Or a good time, if you’re a Michigan State fan. The Spartans have beaten Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota consecutively, and the defense is ranked 19th in the country in touchdowns allowed. I deleted this prediction twice, because I feel that Indiana could pull this off. But Michigan State seems to have something going, so I’m going with the Spartans. Michigan State 31, Indiana 21

Illinois at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN

Murphy: The Gophers get a chance to break a streak of three straight conference losses. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have been relatively quiet through the first half of the season. Don't be surprised if both top 100 yards on the ground against Illinois' defense. Minnesota 35, Illinois 17

Saquon BarkleyRick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsSaquon Barkley was held to 59 yards on 15 carries last season against Michigan. The Wolverines will likely need a similar effort Saturday night to knock off Penn State.

Michigan at Penn State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC

VanHaaren: This game should be fun to watch, because it’s going to be good on good: Penn State’s offense against Michigan’s defense. Not a lot of people are talking about the Nittany Lions’ defense, which is leading the country in points against (9.0). Michigan’s offense is having issues, and while the defense has been able to stop teams in the past, there will be no margin for error here. Michigan has gotten the best of Penn State the last three meetings, but I think the Nittany Lions will pull it off this time around, tripping up Michigan’s offense. Penn State 20, Michigan 17

Sherman: That 49-10 beatdown by the Wolverines came less than 13 months ago. Might as well be 13 years, with as far as the Nittany Lions have progressed, flipping the script ahead of Saturday night. Regardless, even an offensively challenged Michigan team presents Penn State with its toughest test of the year. Few teams stop the run better. Penn State 24, Michigan 17

Murphy: Explosive plays and turnovers usually serve as the determining factors in low-scoring games. Two of the country's best defenses should keep the points down. Penn State ranks second nationally in turnover margin, and then there's that Barkley guy, who should give them the edge in creating big plays as well. Penn State 21, Michigan 13

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Saturday's trip to Happy Valley marks a new kind of crossroads for the Michigan football team. If No. 2 Penn State, a 9.5-point favorite, hands the Wolverines their second loss of the season, they risk becoming something they haven't been since the day Jim Harbaugh walked through the doors at Schembechler Hall in 2014: uninteresting.

Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst -- arguably the best defender on arguably the best defense in the country through the first half of the season -- says he's looking at the game against the Nittany Lions as a chance for vindication.

Redemption isn't exactly the theme you'd expect to hear from a 5-1 team that beat its upcoming opponent by nearly 40 points a year ago. But after losing to Michigan State and squeaking past Indiana in consecutive weeks, Michigan is slipping from its spot on the upper tier of the Big Ten, a spot where its players think it belongs.

"What an opportunity to show ourselves after two kind-of-tough games," Hurst said Monday afternoon. "... They were both really tough games. [This is an] opportunity to redeem ourselves and keep ourselves in the talks for the playoffs and the Big Ten championship."

Most objective observers didn't expect Michigan to be in those conversations at the outset of the season. Oddsmakers looked at the personnel turnover on both sides of the ball and saw an eight- or nine-win team. The local newspapers largely agreed. ESPN's Football Power Index predicted 8.4 wins in 2017. If Michigan continues with its current mix of productive progress and growing pains, those projections could end up being spot on.

Maurice Hurst Jr.Michael Conroy, File/APMaurice Hurst and the Michigan defense have been dominant thus far, but the Wolverines' offense hasn't followed suit.

But for some reason, hitting expectations on the nose feels as if it would be seen as a disappointment.

Perhaps that's because the defense has been dominant enough (the nation's best in total yards allowed and third-down stops) to threaten the three top-10 teams remaining on the schedule and keep Michigan in any game it plays. Maybe it's due in part to how defiantly this team brushed aside the notion that youth could be a hindrance after it beat what has turned out to be a subpar Florida team to open the season.

More than likely, though, it's because under Harbaugh, Michigan has been anything but boring for the past three years. Year 1 brought a surprisingly quick ascent. Year 2 was chock full of blowout wins and heartbreaking losses.

In between, Harbaugh has filled the time with unorthodox innovations and oddball offseason headlines. He has kept the college football world guessing, which is why seeing him and his team do what is expected of them is a bit of a letdown. Scraping out close wins against unranked teams is boring -- not necessarily for those taking part in the moment, but in the grand scheme of things.

"It doesn't have to be that way," Harbaugh said Saturday when asked if that would be the formula for Michigan the rest of the way. "We can grow. We can learn."

Hurst said pulling out a close win against Indiana leads him to believe that the defense still has its best football in front of it. Linebacker Devin Bush Jr. said his unit will take strides forward with discipline this week.

On offense, quarterback John O'Korn said that he "has to pick it up, no way around it." Harbaugh said the fifth-year senior under center could also use some help from the 10 other players around him.

Michigan's players didn't shy away from calling this weekend a make-or-break type of challenge for them. Safety Tyree Kinnel said the team noticed and discussed that they slipped two spots (from No. 17 to No. 19) in the AP poll after beating Indiana.

"It's a big stage for us Saturday," Kinnel said. "We're already down one game, and we want to get back in the picture. I think we do have something to prove this week."

If Michigan does knock off the Nittany Lions on the road, then its turn at the crossroads of relevance will be sharply positive. A victory would cement Michigan in that postseason conversation until mid-November as a plucky, battle-tested group that finds a way to do enough to complement its defense. Lose the game, though, and that learning and growing period is likely to happen with a little less attention than this group has grown accustomed to.

Penn State is pulling Michigan into the spotlight for one of the country's biggest games this Saturday night. Will it kick the Wolverines off the big stage by Sunday?

videoDE Alex Reigelsperger has become the first ESPN 300 verbal of the P.J. Fleck era. Below, see why Reigelsperger should contribute early at Minnesota:

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videoA crazy week in college football at large did more to confirm our suspicions in the Big Ten than cause any major shakeups. Four teams in the AP's Top 10 fell over the weekend, but all five of the league’s ranked teams were victorious and will likely slide up the polls because of it.

A couple -- looking at you, Mitten State -- made things interesting in the fourth quarter. Others, such as Ohio State and Wisconsin, played to their strengths and in the process strengthened their postseason outlook. Penn State returns to action this week as our top five starts to really get tested. After seven weeks of football, the pace is just about to pick up. Here’s how the Big Ten stacks up heading into the second half of the year.

1. Penn State (Last week: 1): James Franklin said the bye week came at a good time to give his team a little extra rest ahead of the East Division gauntlet ahead of them. The Nittany Lions host Michigan before traveling to Ohio State and Michigan State in consecutive weeks. If Penn State holds up during that stretch, its playoff claims will be as strong as any program in the country. But that’s a big “if.”

2. Ohio State (3): The College Football Playoff committee rewards good performances more than it dings teams for losses, so we’ll do the same this week. The Buckeyes offense has apparently found the groove it was looking for in September. J.T. Barrett completed 81.8 percent of his passes and contributed seven touchdowns in a dismantling of Nebraska. Barrett & Co. still have to prove they can excel against good teams. That chance will come after the bye week.

3. Wisconsin (2): The Badgers’ drop to third is due to a boring schedule, but frankly it doesn’t really matter where they sit. Wisconsin, thanks to the legs of freshman Jonathan Taylor, is running away with the West. It would take a major letdown for Paul Chryst & Co. not to end up in Indianapolis in December with a chance to prove they deserve to be at the top of this list.

4. Michigan State (4): This week was running back L.J. Scott’s chance to shine in a win at Minnesota. The Spartans’ rush defense has remained consistently impressive during their climb to 5-1. Quarterback Brian Lewerke said Saturday night that the team should be 6-0, but gave away a game to Notre Dame. It’s fair to say they’ve got their confidence back.

5. Michigan (5): It’s time to stop accusing Michigan of underperforming and realize that this is who the 2017 Wolverines are. The blowout wins of a year ago are going to be hard to find. Without a potent offense to match a top-notch defense, Michigan will have to battle its way to close wins like it did in overtime at Indiana. Luckily for Jim Harbaugh, his young team showed a willingness to fight through those battles along with all their mistakes in Bloomington.

6. Purdue (6): The Boilermakers offense didn’t have enough steam to reach the end zone against Wisconsin. Jeff Brohm said he thought his team “hung in there” against the West Division’s best, which is as much as any other opponent has done this year. With Rutgers, Nebraska and Illinois in the near future, Brohm’s team could be bowl eligible by early November.

7. Iowa (7): The Hawkeyes stay put during a week of rest. An injured offensive line for the Hawkeyes needed a break in order to gear up for a challenging second half of the year.

8. Indiana (8): We won’t dock the Hoosiers for leaving yet another opportunity to take down a high-profile opponent just out of reach. A 10-point comeback in the fourth quarter showed Indiana still have the ability to push the pace on offense this year. They’ll need to win one of those close games to climb into the upper half of our rankings.

9. Northwestern (11): The Wildcats beat last week’s No. 9 team, Maryland, and snagged their higher spot in the rankings. Justin Jackson broke loose for 171 rushing yards after struggling to find holes behind a subpar offensive line for much of the year. Consistency remains the biggest question mark for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad.

10. Minnesota (10): The Gophers have lost three straight winnable games. Home-field advantage wasn’t quite enough to complete a comeback effort against surging Michigan State. This team might take a step backward in 2017 under P.J. Fleck before it’s able to start moving forward.

11. Maryland (9): The Terps continued their drop in the rankings this week as they struggle with a hard-to-believe stretch of quarterback injuries. This team, which climbed as high as No. 5 in our poll a month ago, isn't equipped at the moment to win shootout games, giving up 30-plus points like it did this Saturday against Northwestern.

12. Nebraska (12): The Cornhuskers were embarrassed on their home field by Ohio State again. It was the second straight visit from the Buckeyes in which Nebraska didn’t force a single punt. Neither side of the ball is up to standards in Lincoln, and it’s fair to start wondering how much longer Mike Riley will be sticking around.

13. Rutgers (13): The Scarlet Knights won the battle of the basement and confirmed our feelings that they were a step ahead of the Illini this weekend. Congratulations to Chris Ash on his first Big Ten victory. (The first for Rutgers in its past 17 conference games.) Enjoy it while you can.

14. Illinois (14): The Illini have the worst rushing defense (197.2 yards per game) and the worst rushing offense (118.3 yards per game) in the Big Ten. That’s a recipe for disaster in this league, and unless at least one of things drastically improves, Illinois may not win another game this year.

videoBLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The good news for Michigan is that its defense was again stifling enough to overcome an afternoon of mistakes and a squandered fourth-quarter lead.

The bad news: With the heavy part of a backloaded schedule still ahead of them, the time to outgrow those issues is just about gone.

In the wake of a 27-20 overtime victory at Indiana on Saturday, Michigan coach Jim Harbuagh said his team needs to be more disciplined and continue to grow, but he liked the way it responded in a real “football fight” against the Hoosiers.

Stiffer tests lie ahead for the Wolverines, who face three top-10 opponents in the next six games, starting next Saturday at No. 3 Penn State.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Harbaugh said. “We’re very humble about this, and we’ll move on to a big road game next week. This was a big game for our team. Mistakes were made, but I think it’s something we can really grow from.”

It took a goal-line stand, punctuated by a fourth-down interception for the Wolverines, to put to bed Indiana's comeback bid in Memorial Stadium.

The young and reckless Michigan defense again hovered around 200 yards of total offense allowed before the final two drives of the game, when the Hoosiers erased a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes to force overtime.

The failed comeback -- a familiar feeling for Indiana against ranked opponents -- was sparked by special teams and complemented by Michigan's mistakes.

J-Shun Harris returned a punt to Michigan's 20-yard line to set up one of Indiana's two touchdowns on the day. After missing an onside kick recovery by inches, the Hoosiers got the ball back in time for Griffin Oakes to knock through a game-tying, 46-yard field goal as time expired. That drive was aided by one of the Wolverines' 16 penalties, a school record.

A week ago, turnovers plagued Michigan's productivity in a loss to Michigan State. Penalties were the main culprit this week. Flags cost Harbaugh's team a total of 141 yards, well more than double the number of yards they gained in the passing game (58).

Karan HigdonBrian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsKaran Higdon rushed for 200 yards and all three Michigan touchdowns in the Wolverines' overtime victory at Indiana.

Running back Karan Higdon helped to alleviate some of those ongoing issues in the passing game. He carried the ball 25 times for 200 yards and, in the process, dragged Michigan's offense across the finish line. His third touchdown of the game came on the first snap of overtime, bouncing off a tackler before scampering into the corner of the end zone.

Higdon said it was the same play call that led to his first score back in the second quarter.

"I got the ball, saw the hole was clogged and I decided I needed to make something happen," he said.

He had to. Michigan’s offense struggled to find its stride under the direction of quarterback John O’Korn for the second consecutive week. The fifth-year senior completed 10 of his 20 pass attempts for 58 yards. He and his receivers have yet to connect for a touchdown pass in the two games he has started this season.

O'Korn's stat line was almost identical to the numbers he put up while filling in for starter Wilton Speight last year against Indiana (7-for-16, 59 yards passing). His completion percentage sat at just above 50 percent last week in the loss to the Spartans.

O'Korn dismissed questions about the passing game this time around by saying the running game was doing enough that they didn't feel the need to throw. And while that's true, all signs point to Michigan needing that run game -- accompanied by its top-notch defense -- to continue to carry it forward.

Harbaugh said Saturday that his team still had room to grow this season, that its fate isn't sealed to clawing its way to victories against middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams for the remainder of 2017. But at the midway point of the fall, it's getting to be the time of year when teams have become what they're going to be. This isn't the Michigan team that led the conference with 40.3 points per game last year.

Harbaugh said he liked his team's willingness to fight when facing adversity this week. Fighting might have to be the formula for the rest of the season.

Saturday's overtime win came with a dose of reality that a willingness to fight might not be enough for the Wolverines to put themselves back in the same championship conversations they took part in during Harbaugh's first two seasons.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After a shaky start for Ohio State, going 1-1 and losing to Oklahoma at home, the past four games were exactly what the Buckeyes needed to get right before getting into the meat of its conference schedule. If there were any questions after the loss to the Sooners, Ohio State has answered them through patience, practice and defeating its opponents in convincing fashion.

Being able to reset and work out the kinks against Army, UNLV, Rutgers and Maryland has put the Buckeyes back on track toward the goal of reaching the College Football Playoff once again.

“I wouldn’t say that we are exactly where we need to be, but I definitely like where we are at,” receiver Parris Campbell said. “We are making progress week by week, and I think we are getting better, but I think we still leave too much on the field. It’s not going to be perfect, but we are taking it step by step and continuing to get better.”

After giving up 52 points to Indiana and Oklahoma in the first two games, the defense was where most of the questions started. At that point, Ohio State ranked 107th among all FBS teams, giving up an average of 467 yards per game.

That number has completely turned around with Ohio State facing Army, UNLV, Rutgers and Maryland. Now the Buckeyes are ranked No. 1, giving up an average of 204.3 yards per game.

Breaking that down even further, the pass defense was mainly the concern after the first two games. The Buckeyes gave up 403 passing yards per game and were ranked 95th in the FBS, giving up 7.83 pass yards per attempt.

Again, the past four games were a good remedy as the defense allowed only 53.8 passing yards per game, averaging nearly 350 yards less than the first two games. They also improved from 95th to No. 1 in pass yards per attempt, bringing the total down to 3.16 yards per attempt.

Parris CampbellTrevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports"I wouldn't say that we are exactly where we need to be, but I definitely like where we are at," Buckeyes receiver Parris Campbell said.

Part of the early problems was that the secondary had some new faces with Jordan Fuller, Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette seeing bigger roles this season. Over the past four games, the younger players started to show the progress the coaches were hoping for.

One of the players highlighted after the Maryland win was former five-star recruit Jeffrey Okudah. The expectations were high for the young cornerback, and the staff is now starting to see him start to reach toward his potential.

“Yeah, he’s on a steady incline,” Urban Meyer said. “He’s a true freshman, one of the top recruits in America, and we thought we’d get some production out of him. And I think everybody is excited, I know everybody is very excited about his future, and it’s time for him to go.”

Okudah and the secondary also got invaluable experience and time to work the kinks out since Oklahoma and Indiana. In the first two games, Ohio State was ranked 63 of 65 Power 5 defenses in opponent pass completion percentage, allowing a 67 percent completion rate.

Through the past four games, Ohio State has gone from the cellar to the top ranking in opponent pass completion percentage over that span, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 39.7 percent of their passes.

Playing against an efficient Indiana offense, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Maryland fielding its third-string quarterbacks certainly had a lot to do with all of those numbers, but improvement is improvement and this defense seems to be on its way up.

That couldn’t have happened at a better time, as Ohio State faces Nebraska on Saturday, then takes on Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan to round out the season.

Penn State could provide the toughest test for the improved Buckeyes. The Nittany Lions are averaging 291.2 passing yards per game to go along with 456.2 total yards of offense per game, so it was imperative that Ohio State figure out its struggles before that game. Penn State kept Ohio State out of the Big Ten title game a year ago and this season will come with similar playoff implications.

Even the offense has seen a boost from the first two games, ranked No. 35 in yards per game with 473 compared to ranking No. 1 in Games 3-6 with 615.5 yards per game. If this team has hit its stride before the most important game of its season, it could spell trouble for the rest of the conference and maybe even the rest of the country.

The last time Ohio State lost its second game of the season at home was 2014 when the Buckeyes lost to Virginia Tech. That team went on to win the Big Ten and the national championship.

“We’re rolling right now,” tight end Marcus Baugh said. “We know what we are doing and how we have to play, and now we just have to continue to go out there and execute.”

A team's mettle -- its inner belief, the type of confidence on display that's not in a hype video or sideline celebration -- reveals itself in those critical moments of a season that arrive maybe three or four times.

For Wisconsin, one such opportunity came last week in the third quarter at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers scored a game-tying defensive touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff return, the Badgers committed a holding penalty and scurried to recover their own fumble.

A personal foul placed them 93 yards from the goal line as the noise from a crowd of about 89,000 crescendoed at Memorial Stadium, where the home team had won 20 straight games at night.

Wisconsin's response? Rushes up the middle to gain 7 and 15 yards, rush left for 10, a pass completion for 31, rush right for 15. By the time Wisconsin relented, it led 38-17, the final margin. The Huskers were left shellshocked.

Marquel Dismuke and Rachid IbrahimPhoto by Steven Branscombe/Getty ImagesRachid Ibrahim and his Wisconsin teammates have consistently shown a mettle necessary to step up in key moments.

The three decisive touchdowns, on consecutive drives, covered 213 yards and included 28 rushes out of 30 plays. During the surge, quarterback Alex Hornibrook turned to hobbled Badgers left guard Micah Kapoi and told him that he could have taken snaps in that second half and produced the same results.

"That's when it gets fun," Hornibrook said. "It was awesome to see."

It was a cold, calculated and powerful illustration of mettle -- a smashing success in perhaps the first moment of truth this season for the seventh-ranked Badgers, who host Purdue on Saturday.

Wisconsin looks like a solid favorite over the next five weeks to sit at 10-0 on Nov. 18, when Michigan visits Camp Randall Stadium. Most important to know about Wisconsin, though, is not the reality that it hammers relentlessly at opponents, or even the method by which the Badgers have posted an .804 winning percentage (37-9) since 2014, trailing only Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.

What matters is why this works. Why is Wisconsin so strong and steady in its identification of prospects, development, training and execution?

Look no further than that key moment in Lincoln.

I asked coach Paul Chryst if someone stepped up and spoke in the time of adversity.

"Not really," he said. "All that matters is what's going to happen the next play. I thought the guys did a good job of going forward with it."

That response is typical of Chryst, who is 26-6 at Wisconsin.

Troy Fumagalli, to whom do the Badgers look for leadership when they need it?

"Honestly, no one, really," the senior tight end said. "We know what we're capable of."

So then what happens in the huddle when the Badgers are literally backed against their own goal line in a hostile venue?

"We're all together," said left guard Jason Erdmann, a 6-foot-6, 337-pound sophomore who came off the bench and factored in the second-half runaway. "We know what we need to do. You come in to this place knowing exactly what you need to do. Everything's there for you."

Erdmann best explains the dynamic. At Wisconsin, the culture of physicality and sound play is wrapped into recruiting and extends to every area of Chryst's operation.

It is, in fact, why Wisconsin wins in the manner it did last week. It is why a 12-0 mark, heading to Indianapolis in December, looks like a possibility.

"Throughout training camp [this year], I got so many questions about the vocal leader. Who was it going to be?," Fumagalli said. "But here, there doesn't need to be that guy."

Consistency breeds confidence.

"To run the ball down someone's throat is really the mentality of Wisconsin," junior left tackle Michael Deiter said. "It's definitely something that you don't need to be taught. It's something that's known. That's the way you take over games. It's nothing we need to learn."

The Badgers are 17-3 against the Big Ten West over the past four years. Under Chryst, they're 19-2 when running the ball 40 times or more. The 353 rushing yards (on 49 attempts) at Nebraska, paced by freshman Jonathan Taylor's 249, ranked as the highest total for Wisconsin in a road game since it visited Indiana in 2012.

At Wisconsin, 13 football staffers played at the school. That includes Chryst, the third-year head coach, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Only Air Force can make the same claim. The same Air Force that led the FBS in rushing attempts per game each of the past three seasons.

Chryst appeared almost apologetic in his explanation last week to questions about Wisconsin's dominant response after it faced adversity. His humility is perhaps explained by Chryst's relationship with embattled Nebraska coach Mike Riley, a friend and mentor to the Wisconsin coach.

Or maybe that's just the nature of the Badgers, for whom pride and the plan to chart a path to victory are better left unspoken.video

videoHalfway home already. The college football season is flying by. Five Big Ten teams sit in the AP Top 25 in mid-October, but there are still plenty of opportunities for those positions to change, starting this week.

No. 3 Penn State gets the week off to prepare for its make-or-break stretch against Michigan and Ohio State at the end of the month. The other four ranked teams are in action this weekend against conference foes that could at the very least put a bit of a scare into the favorites.

Visit our college football PickCenter page for additional information on these games and many more. In the meantime, let's take a look at what is on the slate this Saturday.

No. 17 Michigan at Indiana, noon ET, ABC

Dan Murphy: Quarterback John O’Korn gets his second crack at the Hoosiers, whom he started against last season. He needs to help Michigan’s offense improve this week to prevent a meltdown. Receiver Simmie Cobbs should present some matchup issues for the Wolverines' cornerbacks, but good luck gaining any traction on the ground. Michigan’s defense makes Indiana one-dimensional and wins comfortably. Michigan 27, Indiana 10

Mitch Sherman: No way to see this as anything other than a defensive struggle. The Hoosiers were gouged by Ohio State and Penn State, but Michigan can’t match the firepower of its fellow heavyweights from the East -- especially with O’Korn under center after his struggles last week. Young QB Peyton Ramsey will find that the Wolverines present a challenge entirely different than Charleston Southern, whom the Hoosiers handled last week. Michigan 17, Indiana 7

Tom VanHaaren: It’s tough to imagine the Michigan players aren’t upset about how the Michigan State game played out. The Wolverines defense should be good enough to win this game as long as the offense doesn’t turn the ball over the way it did against the Spartans. Losing to Michigan State and Indiana back to back would be devastating, so I think Michigan bounces back with a win. Michigan 24, Indiana 13

Northwestern at Maryland, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Murphy: Don’t expect a lot of points in College Park. Maryland might be looking in the stands for its next quarterback with the horrible streak of bad luck the Terrapins have had with injuries at the position. Northwestern’s veteran tandem of Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson are only averaging 25.6 points per game, though, and have been more or less noncompetitive against Power 5 foes. Maryland 24, Northwestern 16

Sherman: Tough defeats came last week for both of these teams against the Big Ten’s elite. But it was more painful for Maryland, which lost a third starting quarterback to injury. The status of Max Bortenschlager, who took a hit to the head in the third quarter of Maryland’s 62-14 loss at Ohio State, remains uncertain. The same could be said about the general status of the Terps. Northwestern 27, Maryland 20

VanHaaren: Maryland had a tough go at Ohio State last weekend, and Northwestern had the challenge of containing Penn State. I’m torn on this one because Maryland might bounce back, but they also seem to be a little beaten up. I’m going to go with Northwestern just on a gut; maybe Jackson has a big game after being relatively quiet this season. Northwestern 31, Maryland 27

Purdue at No. 7 Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN

Murphy: Wisconsin’s players have been aware for weeks that their habit of starting a bit slow could come back to bite them. Purdue’s offense could have the teeth to challenge the Badgers, but playing in Camp Randall Stadium with that defensive line should be enough of an edge to outlast a scare from coach Jeff Brohm & Co. Wisconsin 33, Purdue 30

Sherman: The Boilermakers, though the most improved team in the West by a long shot, aren’t ready for running back Jonathan Taylor and Wisconsin’s bruising offensive attack. The Badgers have won 11 straight in this series and the past four games in Madison by an average of 32.5 points. Sounds about right. Wisconsin 42, Purdue 10

VanHaaren: Purdue is definitely on the right track with Brohm, but it’s not quite there yet to beat this Wisconsin team. Wisconsin freshman running back Taylor is averaging 153.4 yards per game, and Purdue’s rush defense is ranked 65th overall, giving up an average of 151 yards per game. If the averages work out there, Taylor is likely going to have another big game and help the Badgers to a win. Wisconsin 28, Purdue 17

No. 21 Michigan State at Minnesota, 8 p.m. ET, BTN

Murphy: Michigan State is a much-improved team, but early-season performances make it hard to believe that this program is back to the level of consistency that it showed during previous title runs. Are the Spartans good enough to be good every week yet? Coach P.J. Fleck needs a win in Minnesota to avoid falling to .500. His Gophers will win the turnover battle and get one. Minnesota 28, Michigan State 20

Sherman: The Spartans are not who we thought they were a month ago, and the Gophers aren’t who we thought they were two weeks ago. It’s often easy in this type of instance to overestimate the team headed up and underestimate the team headed down. You see what I’m getting at? An upset. Minnesota 24, Michigan State 23

VanHaaren: The Spartans will likely get some confidence and an emotional boost from beating Michigan. Minnesota started the season on the right foot but has cooled down in Big Ten play so far, losing to Maryland and Purdue. Michigan State’s defense has given up only 20 points in its two Big Ten games this season, so it will be a tough game for Minnesota to win. Michigan State 23, Minnesota 14

More unanimous picks

  • Rutgers over Illinois
  • Ohio State over Nebraska

videoThe line between cement and quicksand in coaching college football is a thin one. Nowhere is that more clear at the moment than in the state of Michigan.

The reputations of Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh each made moves toward the mean following the Spartans’ 14-10 victory in Ann Arbor on Saturday. Dantonio’s reputation is climbing again after legitimate doubts were cast on his ability to resurrect a program that had temporarily careened off the rails in 2016. Harbaugh’s reputation is sliding back down toward Earth -- even among the Wolverines faithful now -- after an uninspiring offensive performance that should create legitimate cause for concern with three top-10 teams still looming on the schedule.

There are plenty of numbers to toss around to support these two trajectories. The coaches stuck to their win-loss records in the aftermath of their third meeting. Dantonio pointed out that no one should be shocked by Saturday’s result because his team has done the same thing eight times in the past decade. Unless he somehow manages to win a national title in East Lansing, Dantonio's record against Michigan will be at the top of his list of accomplishments when his time as head coach is over.

Harbaugh’s coaching obituary, if they wrote it now, would read very much the opposite. His staff is 1-4 against Michigan State and Ohio State to date -- a fact that the coach says he’s very much aware.

“The record is what the record is,” he said Monday. “Against Michigan State and Ohio State, we’re 1-4. The record against all other opponents is 23-3. We know what the records are. We want to win those games.”

Dantonio said this week that he tries to get his players to rise to the level of a big stage in rivalry games without playing with the fear of tripping in the spotlight. Michigan players said they aim to strike a similar balance when preparing for the same type of games.

They take different public-facing approaches to getting there. So should Harbaugh be stealing a page from Dantonio’s notes when it comes to stoking the flames of a rivalry, compared to the next-game-is-the-biggest-game attitude?

Jim Harbaugh, Mark DantonioCarlos Osorio/APJim Harbaugh is now 1-4 in rivalry games as Michigan coach, and Mark Dantonio is 8-3 in games against the Wolverines at Michigan State.

Well, no, it really doesn’t matter what they say in front of a microphone. But there are some other places that Harbaugh ought to be peeking at his neighbor’s work.

Rivalry records will always cause the utmost grumbling, but let’s take a look at their record in close games rather than big games. That’s the more interesting, and more telling, difference between Harbaugh and Dantonio’s status among football fans in the Mitten State and beyond.

Harbaugh, as he noted Monday, has lost a total of seven games in his two-plus seasons at Michigan. Sure, four of them have come against teams that the Wolverines like to beat. But six of the seven have come by a touchdown or less.

Harbaugh’s track record in close games is not great. He’s 3-6 in one-possession games as the Michigan coach, with two of those wins coming against Indiana and Minnesota in his first season. The third was against a solid Wisconsin team last fall.

Shield your eyes, Michigan fans: Here’s a rundown of the final play from each of your team's last four tight games:

  • Iowa freshman Keith Duncan hits a 33-yard field goal as time expires to end the Wolverines’ undefeated season last November.
  • Curtis Samuel leaps into the end zone at Ohio Stadium in double overtime, two drives after a controversial fourth-down conversion from J.T. Barrett leads to a last-second, game-tying field goal.
  • The least exciting of the bunch is a Florida State kneel-down in the Orange Bowl after scoring a game-winning touchdown 36 seconds earlier.
  • A Hail Mary drops innocently to the turf Saturday night, just like the previous pass that would’ve put Michigan’s offense within 30 yards of the end zone, had it not been dropped.

That is a serious dose of heartbreak without even mentioning the most gut-wrenching final play in Michigan football history – the punt gone wrong that handed Harbaugh his first Big Ten loss at his alma mater.

How does that compare to Dantonio? Well, starting with the wildly entertaining Cotton Bowl comeback against Baylor (which came days after Harbaugh was introduced as the new coach in Ann Arbor), his teams are 10-4 in one-possession games during the same stretch. Three of those four losses came a year ago during what is looking more and more like an aberration of a football season.

The Spartans' list of memorable endings during that time include an interception to cap a 21-point comeback against Baylor, Jalen Watts-Jackson’s punt return against Michigan, Michael Geiger’s windmill field goal against Ohio State and L.J. Scott’s stretch for the end zone to win a Big Ten championship.

Science has yet to provide us with any definitive reason why some teams make the big play as the clock winds down more consistently than others. Turnovers have played a role in those outcomes, but that’s no different than most games. Maybe it’s just a coin flip that keeps coming up the same way for these two programs.

Dantonio likes to talk about “finding the inches” when he’s asked about his program’s knack for pulling out close ones. Then again, coaches have been talking about measuring that slim margin since Vince Lombardi. Harbaugh hosts four-hour practices rife with minutiae to try to find the microscopic edges that add up to inches. He has yet to string those together consistently in Michigan’s close games.

The rivalry outcomes are nice talking points, but the ability to pull out the tight ones is the biggest thing that separates these two coaches right now. Another one for Dantonio was a significant step toward resurrecting his program. Another loss for Harbaugh has put a chip into the cloak of infallibility he’s enjoyed to date at Michigan. If he’s going to learn anything from his counterpart in East Lansing, it ought to start with dissecting his ability to eke out the close ones.

videoPenn State's offense isn't a secret. Neither is Saquon Barkley.

Coaches know the Lions' scheme because many spent the offseason studying it. Next to the offense run by Matt Canada, which he took from Pitt to LSU, the Penn State offense, under the direction of Joe Moorhead, gained the most attention from coaching copycats. Last season, PSU set team records for total yards (6,056) and passing yards (3,650) and tied the team record for points (526).

As for Barkley, those who didn't know him, even before this season, simply weren't paying attention.

"Obviously," coach James Franklin said after Saturday's 31-7 win at Northwestern, "everybody spent the entire offseason coming up with a game plan to limit us offensively and to limit Saquon Barkley."

This season, teams are defending Penn State with more knowledge and sophistication. Penn State could respond by doubling down on what it has always done. Even if opponents know what's coming, that doesn't mean they can stop the Lions.

Instead, Penn State is electing to evolve, both with its play selection and with its mindset when the big gains aren't coming every third or fourth snap. If a game necessitates a heavy load for Barkley, like the Iowa contest, in which he had 43 total touches, Penn State will feed him. If a game requires Trace McSorley to complete a team-record 15 consecutive passes against cushy coverage -- "easy access," Franklin calls it -- the quarterback will deliver.

The Lions don't get anxious if the points aren't coming easily or if it takes 10 plays to set up a field goal attempt or if Barkley isn't adding to his Heisman highlight reel.

"We're not na´ve," Barkley said. "We know a lot of teams are going to try to stop the run. It is what it is. We've got to continue to find a way to win."

Rich Barnes/USA Today SportsQB Trace McSorley, left, and running back Saquon Barkley lead Penn State's attack, but at the midpoint of the season, the Nittany Lions have seven players with a TD reception and five with a scoring run.

Penn State's upcoming opponents likely will follow Northwestern's blueprint for stopping Barkley, who was stopped for a loss on five carries and had no gain on another. Remove Barkley's 53-yard touchdown run, and he had just 22 net yards on 15 carries.

Franklin pinpointed the strategy, which he expects future opponents to use: Northwestern folded its linebacker to the wide side of the field back into the box or sent him on a late blitz, closing down the rush lanes. The tradeoff came on the perimeter, as Northwestern sagged off on Penn State's receivers and tight end Mike Gesicki. McSorley completed only three passes 20 yards or longer, but the moderate gains were there, so he took them.

"It's tested a little bit," McSorley said of his patience. "It wasn't that big, explosive-play type of game that we've had, which is deep ball, deep ball. But definitely being able to move the ball, we converted some good third downs. It was really good to see."

Franklin saw "no panic" in his players or coaches Saturday, despite PSU's scoring just 10 points in the first 20-plus minutes. One reason: a defense that already has two shutouts this season wouldn't let Northwestern near the end zone. Another reason: Barkley never complains. Not to his coaches about touches and not to his offense linemen, who didn't have the best day at Northwestern (five sacks, 11 tackles for loss allowed).

"No frustration today," Barkley said. "[I] just understand the game, understand that it's four quarters. If the run game's not working, you'll most likely succeed in the pass game, and even if there's a game where the run game and the pass game's not working, you've got to find a way to continue to win. You can't get too caught up in one play. You can't get too caught up one quarter or one drive."

Franklin continues to push Barkley for the Heisman, calling him the nation's most explosive player. But he also adds this: "An unselfish guy who gets the big picture in a circumstance that probably most guys wouldn't."

It helps that Penn State's offense is not based in absolutes. Because the Lions employ run-pass options on so many plays, no one is guaranteed to get the ball. There's also flexibility on how players get it. Barkley leads the team with 29 receptions, fourth among FBS running backs. Tommy Stevens, the Lions' backup quarterback, has become a bigger part of the team's red zone package. He scored Penn State's first touchdown Saturday on a 10-yard reception, one of two in the game.

As the Lions reach the midpoint at 6-0, they have seven players with a touchdown reception and five with a scoring run.

But wait, there's more.

"We've got some stuff that we have saved for the second half of the year, that we haven't showed a whole lot, that I think will help," Franklin said.

The next three defenses on Penn State's schedule -- Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State -- pose the toughest challenges of the season. All three defenses rank in the top 10 nationally in yards per play allowed. Michigan and Michigan State both allow fewer than 100 rush yards and fewer than 14 first downs per game. Ohio State has arguably the nation's deepest defensive line, and it held Maryland to 66 yards last week, its lowest total allowed in a Big Ten game since 1960.

Given what lies ahead, it would be understandable for Penn State to reduce its call sheet and dig in on its strongest element, which is Barkley, Barkley, Barkley. That's what most offenses would do.

Penn State won't waver.

"A lot of teams have been loading the box, blitzing, basically doing different stuff to affect the scheme," Barkley said. "You've got to continue to play and trust the offense."

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Michigan State made the big jump in Week 6 on the strength of its win over rival Michigan in the pouring rain.

Sunny skies rule the day at the top of both Big Ten divisions as Penn State and Wisconsin remained unbeaten with road victories. And Ohio State continued its surge. Here’s a full rundown of the weekend in the Big Ten with our power rankings.

1. Penn State (previous ranking: 1): Heisman Trophy front-runner Saquon Barkley was largely held in check by Northwestern in a 31-7 road win for the Nittany Lions. What’s that? Oh, there goes Barkley on a 53-yard touchdown run. OK, he still scored twice, and it’s best for PSU to save the best from its premier playmaker for better competition ahead. Meanwhile, QB Trace McSorley completed a school-record 15 consecutive passes.

2. Wisconsin (2): The Badgers obliterated Nebraska in the second half of a 38-17 victory in Lincoln, running the football on 22 straight plays in the second half after the Cornhuskers tied it on a pick-six of Alex Hornibrook. Freshman Jonathan Taylor ran for 249 of Wisconsin’s 353 yards. Is there a challenger out there for this team in the West?

3. Ohio State (3): Safe to say the Buckeyes have regained lost momentum since Week 2, scoring 210 points in four easy victories after that week's loss to Oklahoma. Urban Meyer’s team may not have enjoyed watching the Sooners fall at home to Iowa State, but that’s another topic for a different place. For these purposes, Ohio State, after allowing just 66 yards in a 62-14 defeat of Maryland, heads to Nebraska, then gets a week off before a huge Oct. 28 visit from Penn State.

4. Michigan State (6): The Spartans are doing their thing again. If there was any doubt, MSU erased it with a 14-10 win at Michigan -- a fourth win in five years and eighth in 10 years over the Wolverines. But hey, who’s counting? MSU snagged three interceptions at the Big House and didn’t need late heroics to pull off the upset. QB Brian Lewerke provided all the offense that Michigan State needed with a touchdown on the ground and another through the air.

5. Michigan (4): The loss to injury of quarterback Wilton Speight hurt Michigan, no doubt, but when the Wolverines needed a final defensive stop to preserve their chance with two minutes to play, they couldn’t get it. Spread the blame equally in Ann Arbor, where they’re lamenting a third season under coach Jim Harbaugh that’s slipping off track in the quest to win a division title.

6. Purdue (5): No fun to drop a spot in the power rankings after a league victory, which has been so hard to come by in recent seasons. But this is the new Purdue, where the expectations have grown immensely in the first year under Jeff Brohm. And it’s difficult to move the Boilermakers ahead of Michigan, who won in West Lafayette two weeks ago. Regardless, an 18-point fourth quarter completed a 31-17 comeback win over Minnesota as Purdue overcame four first-half turnovers.

7. Iowa (8): The Hawkeyes welcomed their first divisional game after consecutive losses to Penn State and Michigan State to open Big Ten play, defeating Illinois 45-16. QB Nate Stanley threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns, and Akrum Wadley ran for 115 yards and a score as Iowa posted its highest point total against the Illini since 1990. The Hawkeyes got an 89-yard pick-six from safety Brandon Snyder, making his season debut that followed a recovery from knee surgery.

8. Indiana (9): Aside from the solid performance from freshman Peyton Ramsey in his first game as the Hoosiers’ full-time QB, there’s not much to see here. In a late scheduled game to make up for a cancellation against Florida International last month because of Hurricane Irma, Indiana hammered Charleston Southern of the FCS, 27-0. The visitors did not complete a pass on 10 attempts.

9. Maryland (7): Reality is catching up to the Terrapins, who tried to muster some offense behind Max Bortenschlager, their third QB of the season who beat Minnesota last week in his debut. No such luck against the Buckeyes, who held the Maryland sophomore to three completions for 16 yards. The Terps scored on a 100-yard kickoff return by Ty Johnson and a 20-yard run by Javon Leake when down 55 points in the fourth quarter.

10. Minnesota (10): Speaking of reality, the Golden Gophers dropped to 0-2 in the league with losses to Maryland and Purdue. Minnesota rushed for 227 yards behind Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith but had few answers in the fourth quarter.

11. Northwestern (11): The schedule was not kind to the Wildcats, who faced Wisconsin and Penn State to open Big Ten play. Yes, it gets easier from here, but how will Northwestern rebound from a near-shutout loss at home? QB Clayton Thorson struggled while throwing two interceptions and absorbing four sacks. That’s 12 sacks of Thorson, by the way, over the past two weeks. Ouch.

12. Nebraska (12): For a second time in the past four weeks, Tanner Lee began by tossing a pick-six while in the red zone on the opening drive of the game. From there, the Cornhuskers hung tough for about 35 minutes before submitting to Wisconsin’s powerful ground game. Gone is Nebraska’s 20-game streak under the lights at Memorial Stadium. And gone is much of the optimism of an October surge, with Ohio State to visit next.

13. Rutgers (14): The Scarlet Knights got a week off after the punishment administered by Ohio State in a 56-0 rout. They actually jumped a spot here because of Illinois’ continued woes. And guess who’s up next?

14. Illinois (13): Yes, it will be a battle to stay out of the basement Week 7 in Champaign as Rutgers comes calling. Illinois promoted Jeff George Jr. into the starting spot against Iowa. He threw for 246 yards but tossed three interceptions, which the Hawkeyes converted into 17 points.

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