August 1, 2007

2007 a throwback season in Big Ten

CHICAGO - Woody, you'd love the Big Ten this year.

You too, Bo.

Well, maybe.

An exodus of proven, productive quarterbacks and the presence of several talented running backs seem to suggest Big Ten football in 2007 could return to the run-oriented offenses that were so prevalent and successful in seasons of yore.

When Woody Hayes was on the Ohio State sideline and Bo Schembechler was coaching at Michigan, the Big Ten was grounded more than a rebellious teenager. Prior to 1980, the Big Ten had only six quarterbacks pass for 2,000 yards in a season (Purdue's Mark Herrmann did it in 1977, 1979 and 1980).

Today, offenses have evolved to the point that last season eight of the Big Ten's quarterbacks exceeded 2,000 yards passing. However, most of those passers are no longer in the league.

Ohio State's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith is gone. So is Iowa's record-setting passer Drew Tate, Minnesota's Bryan Cupito, Michigan State's Drew Stanton and Wisconsin's John Stocco.

However, Big Ten rosters include five starting running backs - Michigan's Mike Hart, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, Minnesota's Amir Pinnix, Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton and Iowa's Albert Young - that have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season.

Several other backs, like Ohio State's Chris Wells, Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Iowa's Damian Sims, are capable of reaching the milestone.

Personnel can influence strategy, but don't expect the Big Ten to fully return to its roots. Many coaches indicated there could be a few differences in their offensive approaches, but by and large it will be status quo.

"The Big Ten has evolved from the "3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses," said first-year Minnesota coach Tim Brewster, who played in the Big Ten at Illinois. "I don't think we'll step back. Everything revolves around recruiting, and the kids want to play in exciting offenses. Everybody in the Big Ten understands that."

Brewster, who is implementing the Spread offense, is aware that Pinnix is coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,272 yards. Pinnix's production marked the eighth consecutive year the Gophers had a 1,000-yard rusher.

Big five in the Big Ten
Here's a look at the Big Ten's top returning rushers:
Player, School, Class2006 yardsCareer yards
P.J. Hill, Wisconsin, So.1,5691,569
Mike Hart, Michigan, Sr.1,5623,679
Amir Pinnix, Minnesota, Sr.1,2721,876
Tyrell Sutton, Northwestern, Jr.1,0002,474
Albert Young, Iowa, Sr.7792,205
Obviously, Brewster wants that trend to continue.

"I think we're going to run the football," Brewster said. "The University of Minnesota has been a great rushing football team. We're going to spread the field and create rushing lanes and throwing lanes that allows you to recruit dynamic players that want to play in that offense."

Teams that have the best chance to challenge preseason favorite Michigan may feel the need to take a different approach, especially early in the season when new quarterbacks are adjusting.

"I think it could be a little bit different because of the number (of quarterbacks) breaking in," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "But I think the emphasis will be on good defense until they get the feel of what they're doing."

That's especially the case in Columbus, where Ohio State coach Jim Tressel must rebuild an offense which lost Smith and starting receivers Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez.

Neither Todd Boeckman nor Rob Schoenhoft have significant collegiate experience at quarterback, so the Buckeyes likely will count on the defense to keep them in contention.

But the Buckeyes also are expected to shift the offensive focus from quarterback to sophomore running back Chris Wells, who ran for 576 yards last year as a freshman apprentice to Antonio Pittman.

Tressel didn't actually say Wells would be spotlighted, but hinted that the Buckeyes offense would have a different look - at least in the first part of the season.

"I think there's a core of things offensively we believe in and there are certain fundamental things we like to be able to do," Tressel said. "Then there's an evolution that occurs with every player that plays any length of time.

"So I think you'll probably see a different looking team. You'll see a team that's trying to evolve with the talent that we have. I don't know that it will look just the same as it has in the past, but there will be an evolution."

Wisconsin won't have to evolve as much. The Badgers got a head start on the process last season when quarterback Tyler Donovan stepped in when Stocco was injured. Donovan led Wisconsin to victories over Iowa and Buffalo.

Of course, Donovan had the luxury of having Hill in the backfield. He'll have that luxury again this season. Hill rushed for 1,569 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2006.

"The Big Ten always has good running backs," Bielema said. "You can always recruit running backs to the Big Ten."

Iowa's Young is definitely one of those. He rushed for 1,334 yards in 2005, but dropped to 779 yards last season after being slowed by injuries.

Iowa's Big Ten championship hopes are enhanced by a favorable schedule, which does not include Ohio State or Michigan.

Still, the Hawkeyes will need Young to return to his 2005 form and help ease the transition from Tate to new starting quarterback Jake Christensen.

"We definitely know the running game will have to be there," Young said. "When you have a young quarterback, he's got to have that security blanket. It's always nice for a quarterback to have a running game.

"But the offense won't change. I don't think just because you have a new quarterback you change."

Young was echoing the feelings of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz,

"Traditionally, we do not dramatically alter what we do based on personnel," Ferentz said. "We'll still be balanced, that's what we believe in. But we're excited that we have two quality running backs, and it would be foolish not to utilize those players.

"That said, all the guys we put out there we expect to do their jobs. We'll expect (Quarterback) Jake Christensen to make tough calls and good throws. The emphasis may shift a little bit, but I don't know about wholesale changes."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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