CHICAGO — The Big Ten conference has had a reputation for playing tough, smash-mouth football for decades.
But like the rest of college football, the conference’s identity is changing, as teams are putting more and more stock into speed, quickness and, of course, the spread offense.
Nine out of the 11 Big Ten teams will run some form of the spread this season. Wisconsin, along with Iowa, are the two left out, something UW head coach Bret Bielema says is an advantage for his team.
“[Our offense] is tough to simulate,” Bielema explained. “A lot of teams that run the spread don’t even have a fullback in their system, so when they get ready to play Wisconsin, they don’t even have a guy that can simulate that in practice.”
Although so many teams will spread things out on offense, not every spread is the same.
“In the Big Ten Conference five years ago, I’d say less than 50 percent [of the teams] ran the spread,” Bielema said. “Purdue was really the first spread team in the league to run it, but their spread is completely different than Illinois’ today.”
Illinois’ spread, run by junior quarterback Juice Williams, gave the Wisconsin defense fits last season when the Illini defeated the Badgers in Champaign. Illinois head coach Ron Zook attributes his spread success to his experience on defense.
“When I first became a head coach, most of my experience was on the defensive side of the football,” Zook said. “And the one thing I wanted to do is, I wanted to run an offense that I hated to see the most as a defensive coach.”
Purdue head coach Joe Tiller is credited by many as the pioneer of the spread within the Big Ten. His spread is more of a passing-oriented offense, unlike Illinois’ triple-option.
“Young people like to throw and catch and run around and high-five each other,” Tiller said. “I think the style of offense is a fun style to participate in. So you know, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the spread offense has really swept the nation.
“It’s almost a reflection of our society in that things can be instant in the spread offense,” he added. “We’ve just done our part to help America be better.”
This season, Bielema refuses to be caught off guard by any form of the spread, as his defense practices against it routinely.
“We almost doubled the preparation time that we have for our preparation for the spread,” Bielema said. “The spread is a unique offense. To me, as an old defensive coordinator, the thing people use the spread for is to create one-on-one tackles and make you make plays.”
Making plays on defense is something Bielema’s Badgers struggled to do for much of last season, after a stellar defensive effort in 2006.
“I thought we were [better than] that, but that’s the difference a year can make,” UW senior linebacker DeAndre Levy said. “We had guys in position, and we just didn’t make plays or a lot of times we were out of position. You’ve got to execute before you can use your speed or athleticism. Executing is what it comes down to. If you know where you’re supposed to be, you’ve got to be there. If you’re not, that can leave a crease that can go for 40 or 50 yards. Once you get there, you’ve got to play solid football and make the tackle, be in your gap, be assignment-sound.
“Misreads put us out of position, and there were a couple times we were in position and just didn’t make the play,” Levy added. “If you start a play you’ve got to finish the play — that’s the only way to be successful against the spread.”