SAN ANTONIO – Among some outside the upper Midwest, the perception lives. They say Big Ten Conference offenses are slow. They say flashy spread schemes in the SEC and Big 12 Conference have passed by the Big Ten Conference.
Northwestern offensive personnel don’t want any part of such talk. It’s nothing they haven’t heard before, they say. Throw out the disrespect. Toss away the clichés. Come Monday night, the Wildcats’ goal is one of reputation enhancement.
Missouri (9-4) vs. Northwestern (9-3)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday
WHERE: San Antonio
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM
“To say that we’re slow? Go ahead,” said Northwestern senior tailback Tyrell Sutton, who leads the Wildcats with 776 yards rushing and six rushing touchdowns. “This is what bowl games prove. Basically, each conference wants to go out and prove that they’re the dominant one. I think that’s what these bowl games will hopefully prove. Hopefully, we’ll get that win to keep it rolling.”
Statistics support the Big Ten Conference’s anemic offensive perception. This season, six Big 12 Conference teams rank among the top 12 in total offense (Oklahoma is third, Texas Tech fourth, Missouri sixth, Oklahoma State seventh, Texas ninth and Nebraska 12th). Penn State, at 15th, is the highest-ranking Big Ten Conference team, averaging 452.17 yards per game – about 110 yards fewer than Oklahoma. Northwestern ranks No. 61 (357 yards per game).
Among the nation’s scoring-offense leaders, five Big 12 Conference teams place higher than Big Ten Conference front-runner Penn State, which ranks eleventh by averaging 40.17 points per game. Northwestern ranks No. 73 (24.5 points per game), and Missouri is sixth (43.15 points per game).
Collapses by Ohio State in recent high-profile games have scarred the conference’s national image. Florida, in Jan. 2007, and LSU, last January, beat the Buckeyes in consecutive national championship games by a combined score of 79-38. In September, USC crushed Ohio State in the season’s first glamor game that included national-title implications.
But, over the past year, the conference has not experienced complete hardship. Last January, Michigan upset Florida in the Capital One Bowl and provided a counterpoint to the Big Ten Conference's perceived struggle in the national limelight. During the 2007-08 bowl season, the Big Ten Conference finished 3-5, only beating the ACC’s 2-6 mark to avoid posting the worst postseason record among power conferences.
Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall contends change could come. He says Illinois’ dual-threat offensive approach led by junior quarterback Juice Williams has influenced Big Ten Conference programs to reconsider their schemes. He says Rich Rodriguez’s introduction of a spread-option style at Michigan this past season might push more programs toward systems that resemble those found within the Big 12 Conference and the SEC.
But he says the conference’s leaders will dictate direction. On Thursday, Penn State appears in its first Rose Bowl since the 1994 season. And McCall says Ohio State remains an ever-present threat. Until a spread offensive approach delivers an upstart program a conference title, he says the Big Ten will resemble its current state.
“It’s all about winning your conference,” McCall said. “We put a lot of attention into winning the national championship. Still, when you talk to coaches and you talk to players, it’s about winning the conference.
“It’s all about that pendulum swinging back and forth. You do what you have to do to win the conference. Until somebody else comes in and takes it by storm – kind of like Illinois was starting to do for a little bit – it won’t change.”
Until it does, Northwestern seeks to disprove the theory that Big Ten Conference power can't match Big 12 Conference finesse. Players don’t want any part of such talk. It’s nothing they haven’t heard before. Come Monday night, they will try to do something about it.
“It’s nothing new,” Sutton said, sounding irritated. “We’re always underdogs.”