Big Ten title push is driven by defense

Published 7:10 am Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Indiana and Illinois had some fun with the scoreboard last weekend in Bloomington. The Hoosiers and Illini combined for 87 points, a 450-yard passer, a 200-yard receiver and two backs with at least 150 yards rushing.

Yet neither of those teams is likely to even reach a bowl.

In the Big Ten, title contention is still driven by defense.

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It’s no coincidence that the three best teams — No. 3 Ohio State, No. 14 Michigan State and No. 17 Wisconsin — have the top three defenses in the league and rank in the top 10 nationally in points allowed per game.

“All three of them play a different style of defense and yet they’re all really effective,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose Hawkeyes have lost to the Buckeyes, Spartans and Badgers this season. “There’s no one way to be successful in football. But the bottom line is you have to have good players, they’ve got to be well-coached and they have to play well on Saturday. I think that certainly describes all three of those teams.”

Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) has surged to the top of the Leaders Division thanks in large part to Braxton Miller and its high-powered offense, which is fifth nationally at 48.2 points a game.

Miller and company have made it easy to overlook a defense that, at least statistically, is nearly as good. The Buckeyes are eighth in the country in scoring defense at 17 points a game, and they allowed just 14 total points in recent blowouts of Penn State and Purdue.

The Spartans (8-1, 5-0) have put themselves in position to join the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game by leaning on a defense that trails only No. 1 Alabama and No. 20 Louisville by allowing just 11.6 points per game.

Their numbers over the last three games are simply staggering.

Michigan State has allowed just nine points over that stretch — all on field goals — and stymied a Michigan team that had cracked 40 points five times in a 29-6 win in East Lansing on Nov. 2.

The Spartans, the national leader in pass efficiency and rushing defense, have also had an extra week to rest and prepare for Saturday’s crucial Legends Division game at Nebraska (7-2, 4-1).

“They play the right way. They play hard. They’re sound in what they do. They’re very well-coached. They have experience. They kind of have all the ingredients you look for,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of Michigan State’s defense. “The results speak for themselves.”

Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1) has won its last four games to stay within shouting distance of Ohio State — though a loss in Columbus in September gave a possible divisional tiebreaker to the Buckeyes.

The Badgers held Iowa without a touchdown in a 28-9 victory two weeks ago without star linebacker Chris Borland, who returned from a hamstring injury to lead them past BYU 27-17 last Saturday. Borland earned Big Ten co-defensive player of the week honors after making 13 tackles with two sacks in the win over the Cougars.

Wisconsin still has an outside shot at a BCS bowl — especially now that Borland is back to head up its defense.

“He adds a little extra juice and energy to that defense from a leadership standpoint. It’s great to get him back on the field and have him where he needs to be,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said.

The Buckeyes, Spartans and Badgers aren’t only Big Ten teams playing good defense, either.

Iowa (6-4, 3-3) has shaved four points a game off its scoring defense from 2012 to return to bowl eligibility. Minnesota (8-2, 4-2) has allowed 23 points or less in three of its last four games — all Big Ten wins for the first time in 40 years — and Nebraska is allowing just 22.8 points a game.

Even in an era where scores keeps rising, successful Big Ten programs continue to be built around defense.

“You’ve got to be able to start with something and say that this is our strength. For us right now, our strength has been our defense because of our experience,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.