Posted by: mdegeorge | January 2, 2011

Speed kills: The age-old Big Ten conundrum

The Big Ten hopes 2011 will be a banner year in its history, emerging as a Leader and a Legend for the college landscape to see.

That year could scarcely have gotten off to a worse start statistically.

The conference’s current football lineup got pummeled in a dreadful New Year’s Day bowl showing, dropping all five of its contests by a combined 102 points. It’s actually 0-6 if you include the conference’s newest entrant, Nebraska, and its no-show against Washington in the Holiday Bowl two nights earlier. Three of those losses came at the hands of age-old rival SEC teams, and the conferences do battle once more in the Sugar Bowl Tuesday when Ohio State and Arkansas meet in New Orleans.

It’s not that the Big Ten lost these games; it’s that its teams were soundly beaten, physically and on the scoreboard. Alabama ran through Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl to the tune of 49 points, a total that was that low only because of some discretion on the part of the Tide’s coaching staff and its clockwork offense. That’s the third most points scored by Alabama this year; the only two higher totals were 62 racked up on 3-9 Duke, and Georgia State team that went 6-5…in the Championship Subdivision.

The Spartans were a team that felt legitimately wronged by being excluded from the BCS as an 11-1 team and co-Big Ten champs. They spent more time picking themselves up off the ground then they did moving the ball in Alabama territory.

The Michigan futility continued with the Wolverines’ “No Game” defense surrendering 52 points to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, the most points scored in a game by the Bulldogs this season. They had 31 points by the half and could have made the final tally even more lopsided given the opportunity. All this out of the fourth best team in the SEC…West Division!

Penn State didn’t embarrass themselves quite like either of their Wolverine State mates in the Outback Bowl. But they did allow Florida to capitalize on five Matt McGloin interceptions and score the final 20 points of the game in a 37-24 decision despite the revolving door in the backfield that saw three Gators quarterbacks combine for a tepid 167 yards of total offense and only 101 passing.

The best performance of the day, shockingly enough, was put in by Northwestern in the TicketCity Cotton Rip-Off Bowl. The Wildcats used two freshman quarterbacks to replace injured starter Dan Persa, and hung close to the high-powered Texas Tech attack before dropping its eighth straight bowl game, 45-38, in one of the gutsiest performances of the bowl season.

The cherry on top came when non-automatic qualifier (can’t say “non-BCS school” anymore apparently) TCU fended off Wisconsin’s attempts to take home the glory in the Rose Bowl with a 21-19 win.

It all comes down to that old adage: speed kills. So often when the topic of team speed comes up, it is soundly dismissed as a myth. If you tell a Big Ten diehard that the SEC and other conferences have the speed advantage, they sidestep it. “Denard Robinson’s as fast as anyone in the SEC.” “Evan Royster’s not slow.” “Montae Ball is fast.”

Somehow the obfuscation of “team” speed with “skill position” speed develops. Of course even the third string tailbacks and back-up slot receivers in the Big Ten or any other BCS conference can run 4.4 40-yard dashes.

What Robinson wasn’t counting on was facing linebackers as fast as he is. Ask the Spartans about team speed when Alabama’s defensive ends were in the backfield ready to take the hand-off from the quarterback as quickly as the running backs were. Or see what McGloin thinks about Florida’s ability to break on the ball and jump a route.

The ability of SEC defenses (and the undersized but speedy defenses of Texas Tech and TCU) to swarm the ball carriers limited what their opponents were able to do. It was especially prevalent for Florida, who managed to amass 37 points with less than 300 yards of total offense thanks to the immense boost in field position afforded by their defenses takeaways.

On the day, the Big Ten teams held a turnover margin of minus-5 (albeit mostly from Penn State) and had their quarterbacks sacked eight times compared to the twice they got to their opponents signal-callers.

The Alabama-Michigan State tussle was the most vivid example, since it seemed a different Spartan was being helped off the field each play. Even the TCU defense kept the larger and on paper dominant Wisconsin line from absolutely controlling the line of scrimmage. The Badgers did grind out 226 yards on the ground at 4.9 yards per carry, but the pass defense, epitomized by Tank Carder’s block on the potential game-tying two-point conversion, gave the line problems with its agility. Holding a team that scored 70 points three times this season to a mere 19 is a fantastic feat, regardless of the yardage totals.

Certainly many factors were at play in each of these games—mounting injuries for Michigan State and Northwestern, the offensive struggles of Penn State, etc. But speed was undeniably a major culprit in the five Big Ten victims felled Saturday.

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  1. […] day on New Year’s with a 6-0 mark, chronicled here. Big Ten’s a stinker and Oklahoma-UConn was a rather obvious one. Central Florida was all I […]


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