Big Ten football: Jim Harbaugh dismisses James Franklin’s ‘whining’ in tunnel

from Michael Cohen
FOX Sports College Football Writer

Iowa and Minnesota’s landslide blowouts by Ohio State and Penn State, respectively, meant the five Big Ten games on the college football calendar last week were decided by an average of 19.3 points per game.

But the uneven product on the field in Week 8 still produced a treasure trove of interesting storylines that stretched beyond the Midwest and into the national sphere:

  • Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has faced sharp questions about nepotism after another offensive scripted by his son, Brian Ferentz, who serves as the team’s offensive coordinator.
  • Ohio State standout Jackson Smith-Nigba returned from a hamstring injury only to leave in the first half after appearing to tweak something in his lower body.
  • Rutgers snapped a 21-game losing streak at home in Big Ten play.
  • Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford silenced his critics by throwing for 295 yards and four touchdowns against the Golden Gophers.

In other words, there’s never a dull week in the Big Ten, regardless of whether the games are thrillers. Here are some storylines to watch as another weekend approaches:

Tooth for tooth

Context: Last week, cell phone cameras caught a shouting match between Michigan and Penn State players in the tunnel at Michigan Stadium. The videos quickly spread on social media, as discussion of the confrontation spread over the next few days. When asked about the matchup, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin suggested a policy be put in place to prevent two teams from entering the tunnel at the same time.

On Monday, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh was asked about Franklin’s comments.

quote: “I really have bigger fish to fry than coach Franklin’s opinion about the halftime tunnel from the previous game,” Harbaugh said at his press conference Monday. “All they have to do is go into their locker room. I think you saw pretty clearly that they completely stopped. They wouldn’t let us into the tunnel. our dressing room and he looked like he was the leader of the whole thing. But no, I’ve got bigger fish to fry than to worry about that kind of whining.”

Analysis: Over the years, upgrades and renovations to Michigan Stadium have added new luxury suites, updated the scoreboard and renovated the press box as the building, which opened in 1927, was showing its age. Spared from these upgrades was the tunnel used by both the Wolverines and their opponents to access the field.

It remains something of a rugged, raw, unrefined relic of Michigan football tradition. But it’s also the only tunnel connecting the locker rooms to the field, and the small space becomes cramped when both teams pile in at halftime. Last week’s tight end sparked a screaming match that turned physical when someone on Penn State’s side threw a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into the Michigan crowd, according to a tweet from Michigan football nutrition director Abigail O’Connor.

“The single tunnel is a problem,” Franklin said at his weekly press conference a few days after the game. “And to me, we need to put in place a policy from a conference perspective that will stop these (issues). We’re not the first team to get into an argument in the tunnel. For me, I want to focus on getting my team into the dressing room – not going back and forth. I want my team to go into the locker room and their team to go into the locker room.

“There really should be a policy where the first team that comes in has a buffer. Because if not, this team starts talking and they start going back and forth and what’s going to happen is something bad is going to happen before we in the rules. And all there should be is a two-minute or one-minute buffer between the two teams. That team is in before that team gets close, and as we want to do. But we are not the first team to have such problems. And for me, with the current structure, we won’t be the last.”

A few days before the dust-up, Harbaugh expressed his adoration for the tunnel and said he was glad it had remained unchanged over time. Michigan dedicated the tunnel to former head coach Lloyd Carr on the same day as the Penn State scrimmage. It is now known as the Lloyd Carr Tunnel at Michigan Stadium.

Pulling the plug

Context: Earlier this month, Rutgers entered its bye week ranked outside the top 120 in both scoring offense (19.7 points per game) and total offense (311.2 yards per game) through its first six games. The performance was bad enough for head coach Greg Schiano to fire offensive coordinator Sean Gleason, who had been in the role since 2020, and give tight ends coach Nunzio Campanile the interim title. With two weeks of practice to adjust, the Scarlet Knights beat Indiana in their first game without Gleeson and earned their first Big Ten win of the season.

quote: “Look, I thought we prepared very well over the two weeks,” Schiano said at his press conference on Monday. “You certainly can’t turn things upside down in two weeks. So I think what we’re going to do is continue to grow. The quarterback position, you know, it’s not like we’ve discovered anything. to play on the same day.”

Analysis: No team in the Big Ten has been more restless at quarterback this season than Rutgers. A heated battle in training camp between sophomore Evan Simon, graduate Noah Vedral and sophomore Gavin Wimsatt has spilled over into the regular season. Every player has started at least once and no one has started more than three games. The trio combined for six touchdowns and eight interceptions, though six of those INTs belonged to Simon.

Rutgers’ Noah Vedral connects with Sean Ryan

Scarlet Knights QB Noah Vedral hits Sean Ryan for a stunning 15-yard TD in the corner against the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday.

Schiano and his coaching staff have relied on Vedral the last three weeks to overcome the bye and run the offense after the coordinator change. The 24-year-old QB began his collegiate career at Central Florida in 2017. He spent two years at Nebraska (2018-19) before finally landing at Rutgers in 2020 and has held the starting job for most of the past two the season.

Vedral was neither spectacular nor overly efficient in Saturday’s 24-17 win over Indiana, completing 12 of 24 passes for just 113 yards and a touchdown. But he navigated four quarters without turning the ball over and helped Rutgers convert seven times on third and fourth downs combined.

“We didn’t know exactly how it was going to go,” Schiano said. “I mean, for that game, Noah was the starter, Gavin was the sub and Evan was the next man on. Every match will be different depending on our preparation, our opponent, our match. And until we figure out exactly how we want to go — and you can say, “Well, you’re on your eighth game.” Yes. Like I told you at the beginning of the year, if (the quarterback situation) works out, that’s great. And if it doesn’t, we have to keep changing it until we figure it out. So we’re working on it.”

A statistical anomaly

Context: Minnesota traveled to Penn State last weekend believing it had one of the best defenses in college football. The Gophers ranked sixth in the nation passing for just 263.7 yards per game and ranked fourth in scoring defense (11.7 points per game), fifth in passing defense (159.2 yards per game) and 20 -and in rushing defense (104.5 yards per game). The Nittany Lions then crushed them for 479 yards and 45 points in a nationally televised prime-time game in which Clifford was never sacked and rarely bothered.

quote: “It’s not very good,” Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said Monday when asked about his team’s pass rush. “I can go into that a little bit more. We’re just not going to go home with four (rushers). We have guys that can step up and do better (with) technique, fundamentals. When we did (those things), we got some pressure on (Clifford). He was able to get into the pocket and make a big throw here or there. I know we even got some inside pressure which was good. But we have to be better in that department. We know that. Whether it’s personnel, whether it’s bringing in more people, whether it’s our fundamentals – everything has to improve.”

Analysis: Despite defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s high-profile unit in several important categories heading into the game against Penn State, there were glaring weaknesses in the team’s pass rushing stats that had yet to burn the Gophers.

Through seven games, Minnesota ranks last in the Big Ten and is 118th nationally in sacks, nine shy of the 24 sacks amassed by league leader Michigan. The only Gopher with double-digit quarterback pressures this season is Ja Joyner, whose modest total of 11 ranks outside the top 200 players in the country and is 40th in the conference, according to Pro Football Focus. Six of his 11 pressures came in non-conference games against Western Illinois (three) and Colorado (three).

The Gophers’ poor pass rush is compounded by Minnesota’s inability to finish plays with sacks on the rare occasions they harass opposing quarterbacks. Edge rusher Danny Striggow is the only player with multiple sacks this season (three), but only one of those came against a Big Ten opponent. As a team, the Gophers have failed to collect a sack in each of their last two games.

The defense’s numbers will continue to drop until Rossi generates a more consistent pass.

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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