Big Ten riding rugged defenses in early going, with Wolverines, Buckeyes among the nation’s best
Read the names of the players in the Football Hall of Fame and there is a who’s who of Big Ten Conference defensive players — Dick Butkus, Rod Woodson, Ray Nitschke, Alex Karras, Herb Adderley, Charles Woodson and others.
The NFL ranks are loaded with guys who played recently in Big Ten: Aidan Hutchinson, Joey and Nick Bosa, Micah Parsons, T.J. Watt, Jeff Okudah and Chase Young. There were five first-round defensive picks in the recent draft, led by Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who was taken fifth overall by Seattle.
Defense has played a vital role in making the Big Ten one of the toughest conferences in the country and nothing has changed early this season.
Eight of the league’s 14 teams are among the top 50 overall defenses in the country; No. 2 Michigan and No. 6 Ohio State are in the top three, each surrendering fewer than 225 yards per game. Three Big Ten teams are in the top 10 in scoring defense, too: Michigan (5.33 points allowed per game), Ohio State (6.67) and Rutgers (10.0).
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano knew his team’s fortunes would rely on the defense living up to his expectations that it could play with any team in the league. It has so far heading into Saturday’s game at Michigan in a matchup of two 3-0 teams.
“I think we can play at a much higher level on a defensive front because I think we have enough depth for guys to be fresh,” Schiano said. “When you have guys that you have enough people to go out there and play and be fresh, then I expect darn near perfect execution.”
Rutgers will need it with Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh returning from a three-game school-imposed suspension.
Harbaugh said watching the past three games changed some of his perspectives. He said he felt he might have been putting too much on his team to win by 40, or 30 or even 25.
“I want the defense to be the best,” he said. “I want the offense to be the best. I want the special teams to be the best. Then I get even more greedy and want each position group to be the best, and each individual players to be the best. That’s where we want to go and what we want to be about and we are going to keep chasing it.”
Sometimes the best friend of a good defense is a talented offense.
Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State rank among the top 20 nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Buckeyes rank No. 20 in scoring offense (40.3 points). The Nittany Lions are 14th in scoring offense (43.7 points).
Buckeyes coordinator Jim Knowles feels his defense is limiting explosive plays. Still, he admitted he never feels good about things, adding he and his players are constantly striving to get better.
“”You emphasize the positives, you see things (and) you build on that, and that builds confidence,” he said. “So I think, you know, we just need to keep getting better at that confident approach. The more reps you get, the more plays you make those all count like in the bank.”
Nebraska (1-2) is playing well in the 3-3-5 scheme new defensive coordinator Tony White brought from Syracuse. The Huskers held Minnesota to 55 yards rushing, and they’ve allowed an average of 43 yards on the ground through three games. The Huskers have a Power Five-leading 14 sacks.
“This group is playing like a very ferocious unit,” defensive back Quinton Newsome said. “No matter if we’re subbing guys in or what. It looks the same throughout the game and we just try to go out there and dominate.”
Wisconsin perennially has been one of the league’s top defensive team. New coach Luke Fickell and new coordinator Mike Tressel used a 3-3-5 system with Cincinnati, a shift from the Badgers’ longtime use of the 3-4 under Jim Leonhard.
The Badgers, who are giving up more yardage this season, went two games without recording a turnover and were minus-5 for the season before forcing six — including five interceptions — in a win over Georgia Southern last weekend.
“Obviously, turnovers are huge,” said safety Hunter Wohler, who had two interceptions for Wisconsin (2-1). “That was the emphasis all week. Let it fly and play loose.”
TOP PHOTO: FILE – Wisconsin’s C.J. Goetz (98) intercepts a pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia Southern Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)