Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Big Ten: Winning with Defense and Boring the Opposition to Death

I began writing and researching this post wondering why the heck the Gophers, as a Big Ten team, can't put a decent offense on the field. What I came away with was the realization the Gophers are far from alone in the Big Ten, as stagnant and conservative offense has been a rule instead of the exception as Big Ten teams continue to rely on their defenses instead of taking a chance and opening it up on offense.

We know you can't fake a great defense- you HAVE to have the athletes and good recruits to have a good defense. It's not a coincidence that top four teams in the current BCS Standings have the top four total defenses in the country. Furthermore, 12 of the top 15 teams in the BCS are ranked in the top 25 in total defense- the only three who don't make the list are #5 Cincinnati (ranked 34th in Total D), #7 Georgia Tech (47th in total D), and #12 Oklahoma State (32nd in Total D). It's why the age old adage that "defense wins championships" remains firmly intact.

It's no different in the Big Ten, as the clear top four teams have four of the best defenses in the country: #10 Ohio State is 5th in total D, #13 Iowa is 11th, #14 Penn State is 9th, and #16 Wisconsin is 19th. But the offenses continue to lag well behind the defense in this conference, which is why despite the fact we'll soon be entering the second decade of the 21st Century, the age old adages of "three yards and a cloud of dust" or blue-collar, smash-mouth, defensive, low-scoring football is as true today as it was 100 years ago. The Big Ten, whether up or down, continues to be an all-defense, no-offense, run-oriented, boring, conservative, and predictable style of football.

Last weekend there was no better example of this than the Ohio State/Iowa clash that decided the Big Ten champion: Ohio State's Jim Tressell and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, two of the best coaches in the conference, took turns trying not to lose the game. Instead of going for the win at the end of regulation, Ferentz took a knee and went to overtime- and lost. Tressell, despite desperate pleas from the fan base, continues to be the most conservative play-caller in the country despite bringing in some of the best offensive talent in the country year after year after year. At Michigan Lloyd Carr, and Bo Schembechler before him, were renowned for much the same thing, as was and is ol' Joe Paterno over in State College, PA, and Barry Alvarez built a Sconnie juggernaut on defense and power-running football.

College offenses have made some gigantic strides in the past few decades, including in major conferences like the Big 12, Pac 10, Big East, and even the SEC (In 2008 Florida was 9th in total offense, in 2007 LSU was ninth and Florida 16th, and in 2006 Florida was 10th and LSU 14th). The SEC lags further behind the other three in offensive progression, but still well ahead of the Big Ten.

My question continues to be WHY? I can understand the schools like Ohio State and Penn State, and even Iowa and Wisconsin, for being resistant to change. After all, as we're seeing at Michigan, doing a complete offensive overhaul to try and "get with the times" is not a smooth transition, and if you've been successful doing things a certain way, the coaches and administrators are going to say why bother?

The counter to that, of course, is the Big Ten's record in bowl games and against other BCS schools in non-conference competition, especially for the conference flag-bearers in Columbus. Sweater Vest Tressell and the Buckeyes have dominated this conference, wrapping up their fifth straight conference title last weekend, yet have been embarrassed in BCS bowl games, as well as in their yearly non-conference loss to USC.

Still, five straight Big Ten titles looks pretty darned good on a resume, so you can see why Tressell continues to stick to his guns- by keeping them in his holster. But what about everybody else? Yes, Michigan's transition to a spread isn't going so well so far with RichRod, but I maintain that if he gets one more season there and another monster recruiting class, he'll turn it around. Penn State has sort of made strides with their "Spread HD" but while it's been productive, it's not exactly lighting the world on fire. Wisconsin and Iowa continue to be conservative as humanly possible, but again, the other teams below them would kill for the results those two schools achieve year in and year out.

So what's the excuse for Minnesota? We tried the conservative run-first philosophy under Glen Mason and the best we ever got was eight wins and the Music City Bowl (or seven wins and the Music City Bowl. Or six wins and the Music City Bowl). Of course, I guess you could argue that at least those teams could move the ball. Coach Tim Brewster seems to be trying the first ever team that doesn't move the ball at all and relies entirely on their defense to do all the scoring. So far, not so good with that one.

But what makes our offensive ineptitude so much more frustrating is it doesn't have to be this way because we're seeing plenty of offense not just from other BCS conferences like the Big 12 and PAC 10, but from non-BCS schools and teams from non-traditional recruiting states who aren't just scoring points, but are winning games.
While it's been proven over and over that you have to have the horses to have a good defense, the opposite is true for a good offense- they can come from anywhere in just about any shape and size.

Each and every year the list of the top 30 offensive teams in the country are littered with non-BCS conference schools or teams from non-traditional recruiting areas, and this year, is no different. Only four teams ranked in the top 15 in the current BCS standings have an offense ranked in the top 25 in the country in total offense: #4 TCU (ranked 7th in total offense), #5 Cincinnati (6th in TOff), #6 Boise State (#18 in TOff), #7 Georgia Tech (3rd in TOff including a ridiculous AVERAGE of 314.1 rushing yards per game. I'm not sure Minnesota had that much rushing in the last month!), and #14 Penn State (19th in TOff).

While this proves that defense is still what truly matters, what happens if you're not one of the national powers with a top 15 defense? What if you're a Minnesota who have a solid but not great defense that CAN'T carry your team to nine or ten wins and a New Year's Day Bowl? The teams in the top 25 in total offense might not be playing for the national championship or their conference title, but they're still having a helluva lot more success than Minnesota with their 112th ranked offense. The only BCS conference schools with winning records with offenses ranked 90th or worse are LSU (107) and North Carolina (113)- both of whom have top 10 defenses. So while we might like the Gophers defense this year, and we know they've had moments of brilliance, they're not anywhere near good enough to carry us like LSU or North Carolina, or Ohio State or Iowa for that matter.

We NEED offensive creativity here and a dynamic offense that puts points on the board, and there's really no excuse for not having one. You can be conservative like the top teams in the Big Ten if you've got a top defense, but when you're the Gophers, well not so much.

If you look at the top offenses in the country you'll see teams from all over running all sorts of different offenses: Georgia Tech, Nevada and Hawaii all have powerful ground games while places like Houston, Cincinnati, Boise State and Texas Tech throw the ball all over the place. What do all of these teams have in common, besides not being traditional BCS powers? They all built these high-scoring offenses without monster recruiting classes and without highly ranked high school QB's. Houston's Case Keenum was a small recruit from Texas, Boise's Kellen Moore was a two-star from Washington state, and Bearcats star Tony Pike was barely recruited as a hometown kid from Cincinnati.

All of these teams had recruiting classes with kids ranked worse than what Brewster and Gophers have brought in, yet are lighting up scoreboards around the country while Minnesota are 88th in scoring offense at 23.55 points per game, and just "non-lossed" a game where their offense couldn't manage a touchdown or even 300 yards of total offense against a 1-AA opponent.

As Jer said in his last post, we have talent here and it's not being used. It's inexcusable, and I agree with him that it has to be coaching. If other schools in tougher recruiting situations than ours can score points, there's no excuse for us not to be able to do the same. The Big Boys of the Big Ten are resistant to change because they can be, but at Minnesota, our coaches should be willing to try the spread, the wishbone, or anything and everything that can pile up yards and points. Defense wins championships sure, but if we're going to win anything here at Minnesota, and ever get to even a New Year's Day bowl, we're going to need a much more aggressive and forward-thinking approach.

You can be conservative and boring when you're Jim Tressell or Kirk Ferentz with a top 15 defense and Big Ten titles on your resume- you can't when you're Tim Brewster. We have talent, now figure out how to use it. Let's hope he and Jed Fisch visit some places and talk to the coaches of some of these high-powered offensive teams because if the kind of offensive performances we've seen here the first three years of the Brewster Era returns for year fourth, Brewster, Fisch and the rest of the staff won't see a fifth.

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