Defense still rules in Big Ten

Published 12:48 am Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Associated Press


Pat Fitzgerald, once a stalwart linebacker and now the head coach at Northwestern, looks at the numbers put up by offenses these days and can only shake his head.

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“When I was playing they’d say hold your opponent to 17 points or less and you’re going to win a lot of games,” he said with a chuckle. “And now it’s four scores. If you can keep your opponent under four touchdowns you’ve got a chance to win.”

In a day when the spread offense seems to be in command and when it appears every game ends up 45-38, there are glimmers that defenses are holding their own in the Big Ten.

Big Ten teams comprise six of the top 20 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense, five of the top 20 in scoring defense and five of the top 25 in stopping the run and also interceptions.

So even if the perception is teams are blowing up scoreboards with points, defense isn’t dead in the conference where Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler preached defense wins championships.

The pendulum swings constantly. Not so long ago, defenses adjusted to the advent of the spread attack and seemed to take the high ground. Now, however, it may be swinging the other way.

“Back in ‘04, when we were at Utah, that’s the easiest. I just felt it was very easy to move the ball because teams really didn’t know how to defend the spread. You had more yardage by misalignments and mistakes by defense than certainly you did in the years following because it wasn’t a novelty,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a proponent of getting to the line quickly and squeezing off a play to surprise a gassed defense.

That’s the blueprint. An innovator comes up with a new way of moving the ball, and his defensive counterpart comes up with a way to stop it. Back and forth it goes, year after year, a never-ending struggle.

Even though eight Big Ten teams are averaging at least 28 points a game and 10 are averaging at least 26, maybe once everything shakes out over an eight-game conference season it all might be a comparative stalemate between rock and hard place.

“If the offense is ahead, the defense will catch up,” said Maryland coach Randy Edsall. “And if the defense gets ahead then the offense will catch up. It goes in cycles.”

Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen, a former defensive coach, refuses to concede that the team with the ball has the upper hand.

“My background probably wouldn’t allow me to agree with that,” he said with a laugh.

There is ample evidence — granted, over less than half of a season — to show that defense isn’t buckling under in the Big Ten.

Consider that Wisconsin is eighth, Penn state ninth, Michigan State 11th, Iowa 15th, Ohio State 18th and Michigan 19th in total defense in the nation. In terms of preventing points, Penn State, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota are all ranked between 10th and 19th in the country.

Of course, the Big Ten has always been prone to shutting down the run. So it’s no surprise that Penn State (second), Michigan State (fourth) and Iowa (7th) are among the best at stifling a ground game.

But Ohio State, which has been gashed by long passes over the last eight games, is still tied for fourth in interceptions among all the major programs, with four other conference teams listed in the top 25.

“For me stats get played out by the end of the season after you look at everything,” said Mark Dantonio, Michigan State’s head coach and a longtime defensive coordinator. “It’s a little bit early to lay it all out there like that, but there’s good football being played here and there’s very good coaching.”

Before joining the conference this fall, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said he looked at film of every team. He’s not surprised that offenses aren’t running rampant.

“It’s a challenge every week,” he said. “The schemes are very sound. The players play very hard and are physical. If you want to be productive on offense in this league you’d better make plays when you get the opportunity because I don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get.”


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