The moment that the University of Nebraska officially became the newest member of the Big Ten conference, it was heard loud and clear. A sound coming across the Missouri River that echoed through Cornhusker land. Eleven proud voices from the old guard Big Ten in unison stating, "Bring on the Cornhusker's in 2011, they are about to find out what a physical meat grinder the Big Ten is."
A resounding retort from Nebraska fans, "We Cornhuskers know physical football, it was and is a toughness ingrained in all Cornhusker players past and present. It was lost for a few years, but is back with Bo Pelini leading the way."
More from Nebraska fans, "Big Ten offenses and quarterbacks are about to see a defense and pass coverage foreign to the Big Ten conference."
Traditional Big Ten fans are likely basing their statement on having watched the transformation that took place in the Big 12 in the last ten to twelve years. Ever since Mike Leach brought his "Air Raid" spread offense to Oklahoma and then to Texas Tech flying pigskins quickly became the new normal on Saturdays in the Big 12. To be copied is the sincerest form of flattery and most of the Big 12, led by the power brokers of the Big 12 South quickly followed suit.
Woven into the fabric of that offensive philosophy comes some underlying issues that may have gone unnoticed by some. For nearly a decade now, offensive lines of the Big 12 have largely been in back-pedal pass-protection mode. Gone are the fundamentals of teaching the run game and getting offensive lineman firing off the ball and going downhill looking to attack the defense. Pass protection by nature is reactionary and passive, where run blocking is aggressive, physical, knock the guy down or pancake the guy across from you.
Offensive lines of the Big 12 have spent so much practice and game time in pass-protection mode the last 10 years that run blocking is no longer a part of the culture of the Big 12.
Big 12 defenses have become so accustomed to offensive lines being in pass-protection mode that when an opposing offensive line is coming downhill at them in support of the rush game they haven't responded well. Consequently, this has led to success in the run game for the opposition. Much of this explains the failures of the Big 12 in BCS title games over this same time period. The Big 12 has been unable to run the ball when they want or need to, and Big 12 defenses have become vulnerable to the run game. Simply put, the Big 12 is soft because of the proliferation of the spread passing attack.
Those Big Ten fans who were watching with a keen eye towards the Nebraska defense in 2010 may have noticed that the Cornhusker defense seemed a bit vulnerable to the run game, especially up the middle. The graduation of Ndamukong Suh surely had a bit to do with that but also the scheme that the Pelini's run. The Pelini scheme is designed to eliminate big plays, especially in the passing game.
That Pelini-coached pass defense that Nebraska fans are crowing about. The one that has a history of making some talented quarterbacks look truly awful the very first time that they see it. The one that every Big Ten quarterback will be seeing for the first time.
Put very simply, the Pelini's don't care about giving up a few yards rushing between the 20s. In the end, it isn't about rushing yards given up but points on the scoreboard.
To do this, a lot of responsibility is placed on the Nebraska front four to contain the run game on their own without committing extra players to the box. By doing so, this allows the Nebraska back seven to always outnumber any receivers that the offense may put into the pattern. Doing that allows Bo and Carl Pelini to do what they do best with this matchup zone defense. That is to disguise coverages, play a shell game, to make the opposing quarterbacks think, "Is it really just a standard cover two with two deep safeties or is it something else?"
Count on this much. The Pelini defense isn't likely to be committing eight or more players to stopping the run game and thereby making the play-action passing game that is such a staple of many Big Ten teams that much more dangerous and effective.
All of this isn't a slight to Big Ten pass defenses, it's more that traditionally Big Ten defenses typically play a standard cover two and deviate very little from that. Also, that not many Big Ten defenses are substituting smaller, more athletic defenders for the oversize linebackers and safeties on obvious passing downs. At times, this has hurt Big Ten defenses in out-of-conference play, especially during bowl season.
Big Ten offensive coordinators will try to get the Nebraska defense to commit eight or more players to stopping the run, but the Pelini's are likely to stick to what they do. That is expect the front four and maybe one linebacker to control the rush game. Doing anything else only makes the play-action pass game that much more effective and easier for the quarterbacks. Completing passes against a secondary that places extra players in the box to stop the run is a lot easier than throwing into a secondary that may have a numbers advantage over offensive receivers in the pattern. That is the calling card of the Nebraska pass defense.
Without doubt, there will be a learning curve, a get-to-know-me phase for the Big Ten and for Nebraska. But if each side can take what the other has to offer and learn from it, BCS success could be in the future for Big Ten members.