CHICAGO – Some observers might think the spread formation is just catching up with the Big Ten – or vice versa. However, while the 2008 season figures to be the first in which more than half the conference's teams rely on the spread as their primary formation, the style has been appearing in the league for more than a decade.
Does the number of teams that will use it this season come as a surprise?
"No, I've seen that happen," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, who first came to the Big Ten in 1995 as a Spartan assistant. "To me, it started happening in 1997 when Joe Tiller came in."
That '97 season was Tiller's first as head coach in West Lafayette, and all he did was install a one-back, shotgun offense that produced the conference's leader in total yards (Boilermaker quarterback Billy Dicken) and its leader in receiving yards (Brian Alford).
That year also marked the first of four consecutive seasons in which Purdue would lead the Big Ten in passing. At the conclusion of that run, in 2000, the Boilermakers ended a 32-year Big Ten title drought and went to the Rose Bowl for just the second time in school history. They were not outright champs, though. Also sharing the title that season were Michigan and Northwestern.
While the Wolverines were still going about their offensive chores with a traditional pro-style, two-back set, the Wildcats earned their part of the title with a bit of imitation of Tiller – a one-back shotgun set with quarterback Zak Kustok and halfback Damien Anderson the stars.
The result was not just the school's eighth Big Ten championship but also an offense that averaged more yards per game during conference play – 511.3 – than any since official Big Ten records begin with the 1939 season. Anderson led the Big Ten in rushing with 2,063 yards, including a conference-record 1,549 during conference play.
Among those who took notice that season was Dantonio, then a defensive assistant at Michigan State and now the head coach there.
"In 2000 when (Northwestern head coach) Randy Walker went from more of a two-back thing his first year to the spread his second year, all of a sudden they busted out and had an outstanding year," Dantonio told reporters on Thursday.
In the offseason, Dantonio left his post in East Lansing to join newly hired head coach Jim Tressel at Ohio State, but the lesson from Northwestern was not lost.
"The next year at Ohio State we spent the entire offseason looking at how to defend them and played them very well," he said.
Indeed, an unranked Buckeye squad dismantled No.14 Northwestern 38-20 in a rare primetime game at Ohio Stadium, but that game did little to halt the impending revolution.
In the seasons that followed, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota installed the spread as well, and new Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez's version of the attack will make six Big Ten teams that at least primarily rely on the spread this season.
Though Rodriguez's option-based, run-oriented offense and its potential effect on the conference has been the among the most-talked-about topics of the offseason, he and others were quick to give credit to Tiller for laying the groundwork for such innovation.
"I think that's just the perception that for years and years and years we were more of a pound-it-out, smashmouth, league of big tough football teams – and we still have that – but the perception that all of a sudden Michigan is coming in with a new spread offense, well shoot, seven or eight teams in our league have been running a version of the spread either all the time or part of the time for several years now, so this is nothing new that we're bringing into our league," Rodriguez said.
Penn State head coach Joe Paterno suggested that Tiller brought a whole new concept of offensive football to the Big Ten.
"Joe came in and he started to open up offenses and created a lot of problems, and we in coaching are all (copycats) and I think Joe did that and he did it with a lot of class," Paterno said. "He's done some things for the Big Ten and done some things for college football because of the visibility that the Big Ten has to offer."
About to enter his final season as a collegiate head coach, Tiller was not in the mood to pat himself on the back.
Asked if he took any pride in the proliferation of the spread throughout college football and the Big Ten, Tiller replied, "Not really. I think it was going to happen sooner or later. Young people like to throw and catch and run around and high five each other and enjoy having fun playing the game. I think the style of offense is a fun style.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that the spread offense has really swept the nation," he added. "To me, it's almost a reflection of our society in that things can be instant in the spread offense. And I often times refer to our society as being an instant gratification society, so the spread offense just fits right in."