The Washington Post

In evolving Big Ten, Maryland football plans to win up front

(Paul Beaty/Associated Press)

CHICAGO —  Questions related to the Maryland football program’s transition to the Big Ten continued to bombard Coach Randy Edsall on Tuesday morning, the second of conference media days, and he took them all in stride while sipping on a Diet Coke in a ball room at the Hilton Chicago. Just being in this room, Edsall could feel that his team was experiencing a new culture, he said.

But whether Maryland is entering a new culture on the field is an entirely different question. Some of the conference’s coaches and players believe the league is still founded on “three yards and a cloud of dust,” while others insist that archetype has long been a misconception, one  largely based on school location and Midwestern values.

“Maybe in one conference there’s more people that will spread you out as opposed to more teams that will maybe line up in two tight ends and one back and do those sorts of things,” Edsall said. “But there’s only so many things you can do.”

The evolution of the spread offense has seeped into most college football teams over the past two decades, but Edsall noted Tuesday that whether Maryland is playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference — which had six teams rank in the top 50 nationally in passing yards per game last season — or the Big Ten, physical fronts still help teams win consistently. That philosophy has simply resonated deeper in the Big Ten, almost becoming almost a signature of the league.

Edsall said Tuesday that he thinks that physical play is “for the most part” at the core of the Big Ten. “You win games up front with the offensive and defensive lines. So you have to make sure you’re sound and solid there.”

Edsall’s earliest memories of the league center on the Rose Bowl, and he referenced the physical identity of the Big Ten when he was growing up. But while the conference still identifies with its smash-mouth image — “You’re going to play a physical brand of football week in and week out in this league,” Purdue Coach Darrell Hazell said — the landscape has changed dramatically. Ohio State and Michigan have embraced the spread offense, while Indiana (306.7 passing yards per game) and Illinois (287.7) both threw more than 455 times last season and finished in the top 25 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards per game.

“When you look at a lot football teams [in the Big Ten], it’s just not run it up the middle,” Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said. “I mean, everybody’s got different concepts and systems that are being used across the country, whether you’re Northwestern, whether you’re Indiana or Ohio State. Everybody’s got some semblances of the spread offense.”

On Monday, Edsall noted that Urban Meyer is still running a lot of the same schemes as he did at Florida, where his offensive ingenuity helped the Gators win two national championships. And although the Buckeyes still devote most of their game plan to the run (308.6 yards per game in 2013, fifth in FBS), they do it with spacing and dual-threat capability behind quarterback Braxton Miller, a Heisman Trophy candidate.

“I know what we do. We score a lot of points, so I know we’re a fast-paced team,” Miller said.

From a defensive perspective, Edsall briefly cross-referenced the Big Ten and ACC’s perceived styles, noting that Maryland had to focus on stopping the run against Boston College and Syracuse last year. He compared the Hoosiers’ prolific offense to Clemson, and added that Michigan has leaned in that direction behind quarterback Devin Gardner.

Still, there will likely be opportunities to see old-school Big Ten football this fall, including at when the Terps visit Wisconsin on October 25. The Badgers finished eighth in the country in rushing with 283.8 yards per game last year, and have one of the country’s top running backs returning in Melvin Gordon.

“We love being powerful. That’s our conference as a whole, and I think [Maryland] understand that,” Gordon said of Maryland. “They don’t really have to change what they do completely just because they switch conferences. They’ll be special doing what they do.”


Roman Stubbs covers the University of Maryland athletics for The Washington Post.
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