Normally I like to call the Big Ten the "Conference of Broad Shoulders." It's the one poetry joke I've got, and it definitely fits the classic idea of the conference.
"When you play in the Big Ten you've got great linemen, great running backs," linebacker Mohamed Barry said on Monday.
Fellow captain and defensive lineman Darrion Daniels said the league is "filled with great running backs."
"We are going to play good running backs all year," brand new Blackshirt JoJo Domann said. "This is the Big Ten."
There's something more than just perception going on there. Do all of those comments conform to the classic view of the Big Ten as a run-the-ball, win-in-the-trenches league? Yeah, to a degree. But those comments are coming from the guys on the field, not out of some long-held stereotype. You have to put some stock in it.
But don't mistake that for the Big Ten being boring. There's more to winning in this league than simply running the ball and stopping the run.
There is also havoc. In addition to having the top four teams in the country in rush defense (based on yards per play, the Big Ten also has the top four havoc rate teams in the nation and Nebraska is one of those. Through the first four weeks, as much as the "Conference of Broad Shoulders," the Big Ten has been "Where Havoc Happens."
The Huskers are creating a forced fumble, pass defended and/or tackle for loss (the components of havoc rate) on 25.08% of their plays. Michigan State, classic stuffer of runs, is right behind Nebraska at 24.51%. Wisconsin is a little bit ahead of both at 26.54%. Nebraska's opponent this week, Ohio State, leads the nation in havoc produced at 27.69%.
We'll talk a lot about offense this week in this game, and for good reason. The Buckeyes are averaging 53.5 points per game. Nebraska has a slight edge in explosive plays percentage. There's the potential for a lot of points here for some team and it will probably be the one that can best avoid the negative plays that make up havoc rate.
Now, the Big Ten's good havoc-rate numbers are the product of mostly nonconference play to this point. That has to be considered. Also worth considering: While havoc is generally a good thing, it's not the only way to play defense. Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State, three of the top-four havoc rate teams, also rank in the top 10 in points per play allowed. Nebraska, third in havoc rate, ranks 54th in points per play allowed. Iowa, which is only 98th in havoc rate, is 14th in points per play allowed.
There are a variety of ways to get stops and, by extension, keep points off the board. For Nebraska, however, we know that the defense is built to lean a little more heavily on the negative plays component. That will be essential against Ohio State. Can the Huskers get to quarterback Justin Fields while not opening themselves up to be hurt by his ability to run? That's a big ask. It's also a huge game for Nebraska's cornerbacks. Lamar Jackson leads the country in passes defended per game and the Huskers are tied for first nationally––with UCF––in passes defended overall. Pass breakups are good, but can Nebraska turn one or two of them into interceptions this week? Can the Huskers force enough passing downs––with plays in the Buckeyes backfield–to create those opportunities for the secondary to attack?
This is what makes Ohio State so difficult––the talent level is so high that an opponent has to solve for multiple variables. Flip that matchup around, and the Huskers' offense will have to avoid all of the things mentioned for the defense above. A week after giving up 13 tackles for loss to Illinois, the nation's leader in TFLs, Nebraska faces the second-best team when it comes to making stops in the opponents' backfield. The Buckeyes have 44 TFLs through four games, the Illini 46.
It has been that kind of year so far in the Big Ten, but the most surprising thing here may not be the chaos some teams are producing. Rather, it's the chaos one team is not.
Michigan ranks 129th in havoc rate right now at 9.62%. That's shocking for a Don Brown defense. Last year the Wolverines were at 18.69%. The 2016 and 2017 defense were both right around 24%. The Wolverines' offense under new coordinator Josh Gattis is drawing much of the ire in Ann Arbor right now, but the defense has taken a harder-to-forecast step back, too.
The Grab Bag
- Here is where College GameDay will be setting up shop on Saturday.
- Basketball is back!
- Jeremiah Sirles reviews the Illinois game in the latest episode of Just My Opinion.
- Bookmark this one: Greg Smith’s running list of visitors for the Ohio State game.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.