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Hot Reads: What Kind of Conference is the Big Ten?

June 02, 2017

Think back to when you learned Nebraska was going to the Big Ten. What were your impressions of the Huskers’ new conference then?

Some may have thought of the Big Ten as a staunchly traditionalist conference, along with the Pac-10, during the BCS era that didn’t play a conference-title game and seemed obsessed with the Rose Bowl. Some may have thought immediately of morning games under gray skies. But I’m guessing most people thought of the style of play and those thoughts, at some point, probably turned into the following words at least once: “3 yards and a cloud of dust.”

Conference stereotypes are hard to break.

Now think back again to when Nebraska announced it was leaving for the Big Ten. What was Husker football like then? Well, the Bo Pelini era seemed to be off to a great start. The 2009 defense was dominant and the Huskers were going to start the 2010 season ranked in the top 10. That very stretch right there — spring and summer of 2010 — might be what we call the “Peso” era.

You remember that, right? Here’s how Nebraska’s defensive wrinkle was described in a story from the Lincoln Journal Star on April 1, 2010 (a day when every outlet seemed to be writing about the Peso following a spring practice featuring a mildly annoyed Carl Pelini):

As Nebraska’s defensive coordinator noted, “the peso” scheme is basically what Nebraska was banking on at the end of last season against Texas and Arizona.

“A lot is being made of nothing. Not one call is changed,” Pelini said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’re still calling our base defenses. We’re still calling our nickel defenses. We just have one guy (likely Eric Hagg or Austin Cassidy) who we expect to play a linebacker spot in a base set and be our adjust guy out of the back when (the offense) goes one-back.”

In other words: Hybrid DBs/LBs like Hagg or Cassidy line up as a third linebacker when a team is showing a heavy offensive set, but can shift outside the box into nickel coverage if the offense spreads the field.

I’m conjuring these two unrelated memories, because they sort of collided in a story on “the rise of hybrid defenders” by Alex Scarborough of ESPN. Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald is quoted in the story, and admits that his staff has come to prize “position flexibility” among defenders (again, something Nebraska was employing under the Pelinis in 2009).

But then Fitzgerald also said this in the ESPN piece:

“We’re in the Big Ten West, man,” Fitzgerald said. “You still have to stop the run to win this league. If you’re getting a bunch of featherweights and not enough heavyweights, it’s going to be hard to stop. … But you look through our tape: We put linebackers on the edge, we put DBs on the edge.”

But in the Big 12, things are different, Fitzgerald was quick to point out. With teams like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State throwing the ball all over the yard, Northwestern might have to change its approach in favor of speed over strength.

Guessing those words might ring pretty true to chalk-talk obsessed Husker fans. Whatever you wanted to call what Nebraska did defensively in the last years of the Big 12, it was clearly working. In the Big Ten, it didn’t work so well. And, of course, more changed for Nebraska in that transition than just the conference, but it raises an interesting question: What is Big Ten football now?

Right now, I’d say Fitzgerald’s right (something I find myself saying often). The Big Ten is defined by rush defense.

Last season, Big Ten teams averaged a perfectly average 4.58 yards per carry in nonconference games (national average: 4.59). In conference games that average dropped to 4.25, the lowest yards-per-carry rate of any Power 5 conference (though the ACC was only marginally better). That’s a drop of 7.21 percent, which was the largest decrease from nonconference to conference play of any Power 5 conference. Pac-12 and Big 12 teams found it a little bit easier to run the ball in conference play.

What’s most interesting here is that last year’s drop was actually the least severe of the last four seasons. In 2015, Big Ten teams went from 4.65 rushing yards per play in nonconference play to 4.22 in conference play (-9.25 percent). The same number dropped 9.82 percent in 2014 and 13.02 percent in 2013.

That presents something of an interesting task for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. On the one hand, his Notre Dame defenses were slightly better, or at least more consistent, against the pass than the run. On the other hand, he played at Iowa and I’m sure he has a pretty good grasp on what a Big Ten defense needs to do.

In recent years at least, it’s been pretty clear. As Fitzgerald said: “We’re in the Big Ten West, man.”

Most people probably knew what he meant.

The Grab Bag

  • And after all that talk about run defense, here is ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren trying to decide which Big Ten team will have the best pass defense.
  • TCU is naming its press box in honor of Dan Jenkins, as good a college football writer as there ever was.
  • Athlon Sports ranks the toughest games on Nebraska’s schedule.
  • Dennis Dodd of takes on the noble task of arguing that Tennessee Coach Butch Jones is underrated.

Today’s Song of Today

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