Contract Year For Big Ten Spreads

Is the spread offense's effect diminishing in the Big Ten? Chatter from coaches and players alike at the conference's annual media days in Chicago this week would seem to indicate the answer is yes.

What a difference a year makes. Last year in Chicago, "spread" was a major buzz word during the Big Ten football media days as Rich Rodriguez planned to bring his own personal style of that offensive philosophy into the Big Ten with MIchigan.

Meanwhile, Purdue, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Northwestern planned to continue to hone previously existing versions of the spread, and there were rumblings that Penn State would be adding some spread principles to its pro-style offense.

Fast forward a year, however, and Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster and Indiana head man Bill Lynch could be heard extolling the virtues of the power running game as a complement to the spread, if not a replacement.

"You know what? You never ever want to lose the element of coming off the football and trying to bloody somebody's nose," said Brewster, a tight end at Illinois during his playing days. "That is football. I don't want to lose that element. We want to keep that element alive with who we are."

Simply put, he felt his first two Golden Gophers squads lacked the ability to run the ball as effectively as he wanted to in an offense that relied mostly on spread formations. Minnesota finished sixth in the league in rushing yards in 2007 and last in '08.

"I think that you can run the ball out of the spread, but I think that you've got to do other things also," he said. "I don't think you can just hang your hat on running the ball out of the spread. I think you lose your physicality on your offensive line. I think that you need other things other than just running from the spread."

For Lynch, the change was a matter of seeking greater variety, not to mention an attempt to avoid being left behind.

"We had been exclusively in the spread, and honestly I think in some ways defenses have caught up with the spread," Lynch said.

"We wanted to be able to run the football better down hill," he said. "That's kind of a cliche, but in the spread, a lot of things are lateral. We wanted to be able to run some power football where we could have some different blocking schemes up front instead of being kind of a total zone team."

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, Wisconsin head coach Bret Beilema and Illinois' Ron Zook all agreed the scales are beginning to tip back in the favor of defenses against the spread, as did both Ohio State defensive players in attendance.

"I wouldn't say we've mastered the scheme of it, but we definitely have a good hold on it," said senior safety Kurt Coleman. "You've got to have fast defensive ends. It all starts up front, if you can get to the QB without blitzing and you can man up, it's going to make your job a lot easier."

The Buckeyes' last game, in fact, was a 24-21 loss to a spread team, Texas, in the Fiesta Bowl. Though Ohio State lost the contest after giving up a touchdown in the closing seconds, Coleman was proud of a defensive performance that included holding the Longhorns to about half their season scoring average.

"In the Texas game, our defensive line was getting after (quarterback) Colt (McCoy), and we were doing a good job of playing man on with the wide receivers," Coleman said. "I really don't think you can truly stop the spread, but you've got to have the right personnel to be able to do it."

Teammate Doug Worthington, a senior defensive tackle, agreed with the latter part Coleman's response.

"I think the personnel is very, very important," Worthington said. "You've got to have guys who can play a smashmouth and somebody who can know all the coverages well. Personnel is definitely the biggest thing at first, but then it's experience. The coaches get more comfortable when they see the spread than they did three years ago. It's like a flatscreen TV. In the beginning when you saw one, it was like, ‘Oh, wow,' but now you see them a lot more. The spread offense is still one of the toughest offenses to go against. I don't think you can ever get to the point where you have it mastered, but it's a lot easier for the defensive coordinators to read things."

Those defensive coordinators find their game plans more effective if they can locate and deploy more versatile players, such as hybrid end/linebacker Thaddeus Gibson and linebacker/safeties Jermale Hines and Tyler Moeller at Ohio State.

"Sometimes you've still got to be able to have your bulk in there but maybe have a more agile guy like Thaddeus Gibson maybe go out and cover somebody, and there are things we didn't do earlier like bring guys from different edges and disguise it a lot more which is very, very important against the spread," Worthington said.

Bielema, the Wisconsin head coach whose program has clung to its power running roots more loyally than any other program in the conference, got a smile on his face when he hears about teams having to switch to smaller, quicker lineups to control spread teams.

All the better for his mammoth offensive linemen, burly fullbacks and generally bulky running backs to take advantage.

"I do like it," he said.

But what does Rodriguez think? Despite seeing his celebrated offense struggle badly during his first season in Ann Arbor, he remains a believer in the spread.

"People say defenses are catching up to it, well, I don't know what that means," he said. "What's that mean, they're catching up to it? Either you execute it or you don't. The style is still having success. Just look who's playing in the national championship game and winning it. All I worry about is that we can execute whatever we're doing it."

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