Dead Spread? Defenders Would Be OK With That

One thing seems certain after talking to a number of Big Ten defensive players at the league's media days in Chicago: they sure don't like facing the spread. While most said that, these days, spread offenses aren't harder to stop than any other others, they aren't against changes by Minnesota and Indiana that have those teams moving away from college football's hottest fad.

Big Ten teams Indiana and Minnesota have revamped their offenses for the 2009 season, choosing to go from spread-based attacks to schemes that include more downhill, power running sets.

Some view this as yet another sign that the wide variety of offenses grouped together under the label "spread" are losing ground in college football, but perhaps the Hoosier and Golden Gopher coaching staffs should have asked Big Ten defenders whether they should have made a change.

While almost all said defenses have caught up to the spread in many ways, a number of league defenders questioned by BSB at the Big Ten media days in Chicago earlier this week admitted that they'd rather face teams that line the ball up and come right at them than those who spread the field.

Most said that the traditional style suits the Big Ten, a rough-and-tumble league with deep roots in power football that only began to be shaken up with Joe Tiller's arrival at Purdue in 1997. At the same time, players like Penn State linebacker Sean Lee said facing a power offense is more fun because it allows the game to be decided in a straightforward fashion.

"I like playing against Wisconsin, bucking up, going full-go and saying, "Let's see who the better football player is,' " Lee said.

Minnesota middle linebacker Lee Campbell took it a step further.

"It's definitely harder to prepare for (a spread team) because a team that's vanilla, you know they're going to say, ‘Hey, I'm going to beat you like this,' " Campbell said. "Me personally, growing up as a Big Ten fan, I like that. I like that kind of football."

One Or The Other?
Most players wouldn't go as far as Campbell, choosing to toe the middle ground when it came to rating the difficulty of facing a spread offense against a pro-style attack.

"Every team is very hard to prepare for," Northwestern safety Brad Phillips said. "Every team has its little different plays and different formations that you have to catch on to. Every offense has stuff you have to prepare for that isn't there the week before.

"It makes for a lot of time in the film room, making sure you know what you're doing, making sure you get a pretty good guess of what they're going to run on certain downs and distances. It makes for a lot of sleepless nights."

Perhaps the toughest task Big Ten teams must face is when they are forced to meet two wildly divergent styles of offenses in consecutive weeks. Last season, Ohio State played Wisconsin – which uses a fullback and multiple tight ends while running the league's most physical downhill running game – on the road one week and returned home to face the basketball-on-grass offense of Purdue a week later.

The tide turned for the Buckeyes during their final three games of the year when they faced three spread teams in a row.

"During the latter part of the year we had Northwestern, Illinois and Michigan, and they all played a spread offense so you could kind of game plan using the same kind of plan for each team," OSU safety Kurt Coleman said. "It does make it easier. But the coaches do a good job of getting us ready. We prepare all week. This whole offseason, you study the teams so you know what you're getting into, so it's not a surprise but it's definitely a changeup."

A look at the Big Ten statistics shows that offensive production in the league a season ago wasn't tied to the style of offense a team ran. The top three yardage gainers in conference games – Illinois, Penn State and Wisconsin, in that order – run, respectively, a spread, a hybrid offense that combines pro-style and spread principles, and a straight pro-style offense.

The top scoring offense was Penn State, which was followed by a tie between Iowa – a pro-style offense – and Ohio State, which ran a hybrid offense. Illinois was right behind.

That's because, the Big Ten defenders said, each type of offense has its tough points to defend. Spread offenses, obviously, lengthen the field horizontally and force defenders to make plays in space.

"I really don't like playing against the spread, to tell you the truth," Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer said. "Especially getting those fast guys running around, it's kind of tough. Any time we play against a spread offense, it's kind of tough. The whole thing is if everybody does their job, we shouldn't have a problem defending it, but that isn't really always the case."

Pro-style offenses, like the one so proudly run by Wisconsin and head coach Bret Bielema, aren't as complicated because of deception, but they can do a lot to keep defenses honest. The Badgers do it through a running game that averaged 4.6 yards per carry a season ago.

"They do a lot of things, too," said Lee, who helped out the Penn State coaches last season while he was out with a knee injury. "When you have a guy like P.J. Hill, who was a tough running back, and you have a big offensive line and they're running power and they're pushing you around, changing the line of scrimmage, no matter what that's still going to be 5 or 6 yards (per play) if they're really pushing you around. That's the same thing with a spread team throwing the bubble (screen) and getting 5 yards outside."

One Stands Above The Rest
But one school's offense lapped the rest of the field when it came to mentions as the trickiest and perhaps most maddening to prepare for in the league.

That scheme belongs to the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Since Ron Zook took over the squad in 2005, Illinois has run a spread offense that has evolved but still operated under the key components of misdirection and distributing the ball to its best playmakers in space. Mike Locksley was the offensive coordinator for the past four years before leaving to become the head coach at New Mexico; Zook hired Mike Schultz from TCU to run the same offense in '09.

If it continues to befuddle Big Ten foes as it has in the past, expect fourth-year starter Juice Williams – as adept with his feet as he is with a ball in his hands, and that's after leading the league in passing yards per game last season by a wide margin – to have a standout senior season.

"Personally, I think Illinois does a great job because not only do they run the spread but they also run the hurry up," Campbell said. "They get guys tired and they work extremely hard. I think they run a great offense, I really do. They'll step up and you'll think they're going to do one thing and then they'll shift and move to the next. It's tough to prepare for."

Ohio State fans know that fact all too well. The Fighting Illini compiled 455 yards of total offense a season ago – the most allowed in a game by OSU – during a loss to the Buckeyes, but the real game seared into the memory banks of Ohio State fans came in 2007.

In that clash in Ohio Stadium, an Illinois team eventually bound for the Rose Bowl upset undefeated and then-No. 1 Ohio State 28-21 behind four touchdown passes from Williams. Controversy dogged that game thanks to an uncalled fumble and an illegal pick on a touchdown play, but there was little denying that the Illinois offense had the Buckeye defense off kilter all game long.

"(Williams) was really running that offense very efficiently," Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman said. "But I think it was also, we weren't used to it yet. I don't think our defense was fully prepared for it."

That might sound alarm bells for Ohio State fans, but Lee admitted that Penn State has had its fair share of troubles with the Fighting Illini offense as well.

"Until you get in that game and actually play against them, it's tough to game plan," Lee said. "We always have trouble with them right off the bat. You get in there and you think you have your reads down, you think you have the offense set, and they throw something new at you. You have to get on the sideline, talk it out with the coaches and realize, ‘OK, we're going to read this and this, and when they come out in this formation, this is what they're trying to do, so let's try reading this.' Usually with the coaches we have it's usually the second quarter, we know what we're looking for and we can play a little bit faster because of that.

"Coach Zook does a good job of putting good athletes in great positions, mixing it up. That's why they've been successful the last few years."

On The Wane?
For all of the plaudits, however, Illinois finished 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten, missing out on a bowl game a year after making a Rose Bowl appearance.

One of the major reasons was the decline of the team's running game. With league MVP Rashard Mendenhall running the football and Williams racking up yards from the QB position, the Fighting Illini's total of 262.0 rushing yards per conference game led the Big Ten by more than 50 yards in 2007.

Last season, Illinois was just fifth in rushing yards in league games, averaging 155.6. Williams led the team in per-game rushing with 54.0 yards.

Those struggles didn't prompt a change at Illinois – turnovers and miscues were bigger issues than a flagging rushing game – but struggling ground games caused Indiana and Minnesota to make changes. Indiana was ninth in the league in conference rushing a season ago while the Golden Gophers brought up the rear by an average of more than 30 yards per game.

That has prompted some to opine that defenses have gained ground, in some ways, to spread offenses. To many, spreads have been known as a "great equalizer" that allows teams short on talent to level the playing field, but as defenses have become used to it they have come up with countering schemes and started playing quicker defenders.

"It's still tough to defend, it's tough to prepare for, but I think defenses are starting to finally catch up, starting to come up with coverages that will take away a lot of the empty routes in the spread offense," Phillips said.

"It makes your defense really use all of your players, but if you get the right players to do it – and I think we do – it's not any more difficult than any other offense," Coleman added, perhaps referencing linebacker/safety hybrids like Jermale Hines and Tyler Moeller.

Going into the 2008 season, Michigan, Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern will be the four Big Ten teams running true spread offenses, though each offense diverges on how it tries to attack opposing defenses. The rest will run hybrid schemes or stick with traditional Big Ten, I-formation football.

No matter which offense each team is running, they can all agree that, spread or pro-style, they hope to operate one that follows the plan and gets the job done.

"I think it's all tough," Lee said. "It comes down to how well teams are executing. No matter what they do, it's going to be tough."

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