MINNEAPOLIS — With so few games in a football season and such a long wait to get to them, there is no event quite like the opener. Regardless of opponent, live action of teams on the field after so many months of practice and speculation can sure make a strong impression.
The first week of play in the Big Ten carried plenty of mystery, from new quarterbacks to new schemes to new coaches, and a couple of transfers were the biggest standouts.
Maryland started with flourish a under first-year coach Michael Locksley, using four touchdown passes by former Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson to beat overmatched Howard 79-0 in a soft launch to the season against a nearby FCS foe.
The truer gauge of how Jackson and the Terrapins might fare this season should come on Saturday against No. 21 Syracuse, but for last weekend at least everything was in working order and then some. They came within one point of matching the school single-game scoring record, the defense allowed just 68 yards, and special teams produced a punt return for a touchdown.
Jackson, who started three games for the Hokies last year before an injury ended his season, threw for a 26-yard score early in the first quarter when the Bison brought six pass rushers on a blitz that left him vulnerable in the pocket.
“He had to stand in the face of an unblocked player and deliver an accurate pass, which he did to Dontay Demus. Those are the types of things that really impressed me,” Locksley said.
About 400 miles to the west, Ohio State also turned its offense over to a transfer quarterback from a prominent program. Justin Fields, who served as the backup as a freshman last year at Georgia, had four touchdown passes and one running score in a 45-21 victory over Florida Atlantic.
New Buckeyes coach Ryan Day raved about an innocuous third-down throwaway as much as any play in Fields’ debut, and his pocket presence was a promising development. His final touchdown of the afternoon, to tight end Jeremy Ruckert, was spot on in the back of the end zone while being leveled by an Owls pass rusher.
“He got hit right in the mouth. He stood in there. That’s playing in the Big Ten, and that’s what it’s going to be like moving forward,” Day said.
The initial takeaways, of course, can sometimes be less clear.
Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar, who reclaimed the starting job after David Blough graduated and landed in the NFL, threw for a career-best 426 yards on the road against Nevada. Sindelar was picked off twice, though, a recurrence of a past problem. The second interception came on a deep pass by the Boilermakers with less than a minute left, leading to the winning 56-yard field goal by the Wolfpack as time expired.
Indiana not only rolled out a freshman quarterback, Michael Penix Jr., but new offensive and defensive coordinators. Penix had an up-and-down game and went long stretches without a completion, but he was strong enough to win the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award and join Antwaan Randle El (in 1998) as the only Hoosiers freshman with more than 300 passing yards in his first start. Though Indiana sealed the win over Ball State with a late interception, defensive coordinator Kane Wommack diagnosed 25 missed tackles that accounted for 181 yards against the Cardinals.
Nebraska fans took a far more developed perception of quarterback Adrian Martinez into the season, after a solid finish down the stretch of his freshman year. Still, the expectations have soared for coach Scott Frost’s second season, and Martinez’s performance at home against South Alabama left a lot to be desired. The Huskers generated just 276 total yards, as he was hesitant as he ran, missed several open receivers, was intercepted once and nearly picked off two other times.
“I’ll take that responsibility because my teammates deserve better out of me, and I have to be able to bring it at a higher level,” Martinez said.
Northwestern was left with a lot of work to do, too. Coach Pat Fitzgerald kept his quarterback pick private until game time, and the secrecy certainly didn’t breed any success. Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson got the start, finishing just 6 for 17 for 55 yards and two interceptions. T.J. Green relieved him briefly but left with an injury during the 17-7 loss at Stanford.
“I saw a freshman quarterback in his first start who did everything in his power to prepare himself to play,” Fitzgerald said. “He has to get a lot better, and he will get better. He’ll work on it. I have great confidence in him.”