Big Ten offenses are spread out
It would be easy to watch the inaugural Big Ten championship game last December and conclude that the league's offensive identity hasn't changed much through the years.
Wisconsin, the epitome of power football, lined up with two tight ends, a single back and five colossuses up front. The Badgers did what they've done for years: pound away with a gifted running back, Montee Ball, and mix in play-action passes. Michigan State's offense had a passing lean, but the Spartans operated from a standard pro set with a pure drop-back passer, Kirk Cousins, and a boulder of a running back, the 244-pound Le'Veon Bell.
There were no clouds of dust on the artificial surface at Lucas Oil Stadium, and plenty of plays stretched longer than three yards. But Wisconsin and Michigan State displayed many offensive traits often associated with the Big Ten. Even the fullback, an endangered species in college football, made appearances in Indy.
While the final score, 42-39, seemed more fitting of a Big 12 or Pac-12 championship game, the Badgers' victory over the Spartans reinforced what most believe to be Big Ten offense.
It's not so simple.
The Badgers and Spartans, with their traditional schemes, are actually in the minority in the Big Ten. Eight Big Ten squads -- Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State and Purdue -- will run some or most of their plays from a spread offense framework in 2012. Conversely, only four teams -- Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa -- are expected to operate from the pro set, and three of them (Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin) are under new offensive leadership.
Since Joe Tiller brought the spread to the Big Ten at Purdue in 1997, the system has caught on to varying degrees.
"When I first came back [to the Big Ten] as an assistant coach [in 2001], the spread was almost looked at as a gimmick," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Now, it's fully ingrained. There are seven dual-threat quarterbacks in our league now, so the way recruiting has gone with the quarterback play has really changed."
The seven dual-threat quarterbacks projected to start in the Big Ten this fall have combined for 16,974 career pass yards and 9,839 career rush yards. Three of them -- Michigan's Denard Robinson, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez -- finished among the league's top 10 rushers in 2011.
Is the Big Ten a spread league? Not exactly. Big Ten offense in 2012 falls between the traditional and the new age. It can't be pinned down.
Traditional offenses either have spread elements or will have them this season. Spread offenses have power pieces, either with formations or with personnel, and are generally more evolved. Most Big Ten offenses, spread or pro-style, will operate at a quicker pace in 2012. The arrival of two offensive-minded head coaches, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Penn State's Bill O'Brien, along with seven new offensive coordinators with varied backgrounds, broaden the identity.
"There's typically a flavor of the day," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Big Ten looks a lot like Baskin-Robbins in 2012.
"You've got to have the ability to spread the field, condense the field, run at people, play-action pass," Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "Every offense is good on second-and-medium or short. But how do you address every situation in football?"
Borges, a coordinator at six major-conference programs since 1995, never wanted to be called a purist with an easy-to-label offense. Still, he's a card-carrying member of the pro-style crowd, and while he estimates Michigan runs 80 percent of its plays out of the spread because of Robinson's skill set, the Wolverines will have a pro-style structure after Robinson departs.
Yet not completely.
"We're not going to abandon that which has been good, if the personnel still suits what you want to do," he said. "Rather than have the quarterback run the ball 25 times, maybe he only runs it 10 times, or five times, whatever. Where in certain years, the quarterback never ran the ball. We will always possess the ability to spread the field. Because you have to."
While pro-style practitioners like Borges absorb spread elements, spread coaches have had to adjust, too. The offenses Meyer and Kevin Wilson run at Ohio State and Indiana, respectively, are shells of the ones they directed in 2001, when Meyer's Bowling Green team visited Northwestern, where Wilson served as offensive coordinator. That day, the teams combined for 85 points, 183 plays, 64 first downs and 1,242 yards. Bowling Green scored 29 fourth-quarter points, including 15 in the final 3:40, to win 43-42.
It was a spread-offense showcase in the purest sense. But the game has changed.
"It's not a novelty anymore," Meyer said. "It was at one point. So you always have to keep adding. We'll do some things this year that we've never done before. Every year at Florida, we added an element, whether it was up-tempo, no-huddle, whether it was some underneath center stuff. Coach [Steve] Spurrier's a great example. It used to be Fun 'n' Gun. It's not Fun 'n' Gun any more. It's the spread offense. And he adapted to, first of all, his personnel, but also, you've just got to keep moving.
"Because if you don't add, eventually they'll catch up."
Wilson's evolution with the spread has been twofold. First, he has increased tempo to knife through defenses before they can line up. And while the original spread he brought to Northwestern in 2000 was rooted in the zone read -- virtually a carbon copy of Rich Rodriguez's offense -- he shaped it more around high-percentage passes at Oklahoma.
He wants to do the same at Indiana and brought in new coordinator Seth Littrell, a Mike Leach disciple who orchestrated the nation's No. 3 pass offense at Arizona in 2011.
"The game has evolved in the last 10 years in the spread," Wilson said, "as people have learned to pass the ball at a very efficient rate. A lot of those passes are conservative. They're runs."
Wilson, discussing the evolution at Big Ten media days, spotted former Michigan quarterback and current ESPN analyst Brian Griese.
"Brian, at Michigan, what was your completion percentage goal?" Wilson asked Griese, who led the Wolverines' offense from 1995 to '97. "Fifty-eight, 60 percent? Did you have a target number?"
"It was 63," Griese replied.
"Right now, if you had completed 63 percent of your balls last year, you would have been 60th in the country," Wilson said. "I remember [the target] was 58 percent when I was at [North] Carolina in the '80s, and that would have been in the bottom half of college football. It used to be, you thought two out of three [passes completed] was great. Now it's three out of four.
"That's where the spread has evolved, too."
Perhaps the best example of contemporary Big Ten offense comes from the team that first brought the spread to the league. Tiller's "Basketball on Grass" offense at Purdue was a game-changer, as the Boilers quickly became one of the nation's most potent passing attacks.
Purdue still runs plays from the spread these days, but it also operates from a pro-style set with multiple running backs and tight ends.
"We have, from a passing standpoint, the same spread offense that we had when Drew Brees was here and coach Tiller was the head coach," said Boilers coach Danny Hope, an assistant for Tiller at Purdue from 1997 to 2001. "We call the same pass routes, it's almost verbatim. The biggest difference in our offense now, compared to the Joe Tiller era, is we're trying to establish more of a run game. We have the potential to get in the shotgun and wing it every down if we have to. We have the potential to get in two backs and run it every down if we have to."
Boilers quarterback Caleb TerBush described Purdue's old scheme as "a quarterback's dream." But he understands why Hope and offensive coordinator Gary Nord preach balance rather than a pure spread.
"So many teams have caught onto it," TerBush said. "They're learning how to defend it, so the balance is the best way to go. In case someone's able to stop that spread game, you can hit them with the power."
One theme that resonated among Big Ten offensive coaches throughout the spring was a desire to increase tempo. The success of offenses like Oregon's, which operates so quickly that opposing defenders fake injuries to slow down the Ducks, has resonated around the country. The next phase of the spread simply could be a faster spread.
Some Big Ten offenses already operate at an accelerated pace -- Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana -- and others will join them this season. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman wants to reach "jet tempo." Illinois will speed things up under new coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales.
And it's not just spread teams. O'Brien is pushing the pedal at Penn State. New Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has used both the spread and the pro style in his lengthy career, is doing the same.
"Definitely the quick game is different than we had," Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg said. "The up-tempo, the 2-minute, the end-of-the-half stuff, it's a little more structured. It's definitely more versatile."
Six Big Ten teams either have new head coaches and/or new primary offensive play-callers in 2012, but no offense carries greater mystery than Penn State's. The Lions will run the same system O'Brien used last season with the New England Patriots, who finished second in the NFL in total yards (428 ypg) and third in scoring (32.1 ppg).
Penn State isn't becoming Oregon or West Virginia, but O'Brien's multilayered scheme is a dramatic departure from the program's typically buttoned-up offensive approach.
"They can do so much," Penn State defensive lineman Jordan Hill said. "I'd get frustrated during the spring, because I'd think we'd have the play broken down, and somebody just appears open. One time, I came off the field and I'm like, 'He came off the sideline, didn't he?' I kept questioning them, 'He came right off the sideline to catch the ball. He wasn't out there.'"
Versatility might be the buzzword with Big Ten offenses in 2012, but the power run, the league's bedrock for decades, remains a focal point, and not just at places like Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa. New Illinois coach Tim Beckman expects his team to run the power, the counter, the zone and maybe even the lead.
"You need a power element to be good," Meyer said. "That's our base play. You say, 'What's your offense like?' Well, we're a power offense from a spread formation. So one man's opinion is, to be a championship-level football team, you better be a power team."
Borges needs no convincing. Like many Big Ten play-callers, he has his preferences but needs to find symmetry.
He must let one of the nation's best spread quarterbacks do what he does best, while keeping the quarterback healthy. He must speed things up at times without operating at a tempo that can exhaust Michigan's own defense. He must call most plays from a spread structure without losing sight of the power elements that have helped win Big Ten titles for decades, most recently by Wisconsin last December in Indianapolis.
"I'm biased," Borges said. "I still believe that everything will eventually go back to two-back, one-back offense. But the mixture of the two, the ability to run the ball inside the tackles with power, to run the ball outside with finesse, to spread the defense and do what you need to do, that type of diversity is essential.
"Your versatility or diversity is really the key to offensive football."
It certainly will be this season in the Big Ten.
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