Big Ten is bullish on defense this season

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COLUMBUS, OHIO (AP) - Even in a conference stocked with teams that pride themselves on stopping offenses, this is a vintage year.

Three of the top six teams in the nation at preventing scoring and three of the top seven against the pass and also in total defense come out of the Big Ten.

“It is a league filled with exceptional defenses this year,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said.

Clearly, the conference is good at building stone walls against the many offenses designed to create mismatches or apply leverage against a defender. Six of the top 30 teams in scoring defense come from the Big Ten.

The defenses are winning out this year because of several factors.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose defense is No. 1 in the nation against the pass, second in total defense, third against the run and fourth in points allowed, put the onus on familiarity.

“There’s continuity for a lot of football teams in this conference,” said Dantonio, whose 15th-ranked Spartans host No. 4 Wisconsin in the conference’s game of the year (to date) coming up on Saturday. “One of our biggest attributes here and the reason we are being successful is that we’ve had the same defensive staff in place for five years now. So our players are hearing the same things and we can adjust things and critique it and make it better.”

The Big Ten earned its label as a defense-first conference back in the 1960s and ‘70s, when Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes prowled the sidelines. A lot has changed since then _ the conference is 12 teams and now plays in the Leaders and Legends divisions, just for a couple of obvious examples. But one thing that hasn’t been altered is the belief that as much as talent and strategy and effort, toughness wins games.

“There’s always some things that people go to with the spread and different types of offenses,” said Brady Hoke of No. 18 Michigan. “But at the same time I still think it’s an awfully physical football league. The way teams play in this league, that physicalness is always there.”

It begins even before a player enrolls. It’s an integral part of the only-the-strong-survive process known as recruiting.

“The one thing you can’t overlook is toughness,” said Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell. “All the guys you’re going to try and recruit you think can run well enough. But can they tackle? Are they tough enough? To me, the two things that separate people once they get to college, I don’t care what the position is, is their work ethic and their toughness.”

If the late Schembechler and Hayes, wherever they are, saw the stat sheet from Ohio State’s 17-7 upset of No. 16 Illinois last week, they had to be smiling. The Buckeyes ran the ball 51 times but threw just four passes _ completing only one. To put that into perspective, tailback Montee Ball completed one pass to quarterback Russell Wilson in No. 4 Wisconsin’s 59-7 win over Indiana last week.

Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema has the nation’s highest-scoring offense _ and also a defense which is in the top 10 in most major categories.

He’s not a bit surprised that the Big Ten seems to emphasize defense over offense, since most of the coaches come from that side of the ball. Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Hoke, No. 13 Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, Dantonio, 23rd-ranked Illinois’ Ron Zook, Fickell and Bielema himself all were former defensive players and/or coaches.

They all respect the oftentimes anonymous defenders. When the mercury drops or the rain falls, as is the case every October, the coaches all recognize that the games will likely be decided by the guys in the trenches and the guys on defense.

“We do talk to our defensive players about you’re going to get to play in an environment where defense is appreciated,” Bielema said. “That’s something that’s kind of unique in the Big Ten.”

There are conferences where the laser-throwing quarterbacks and fleet wide receivers rule. But not necessarily this one.

“If we’re playing good defense, at least we have a chance to be competitive,” Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz said. “To try to outscore people all the time, that’s a challenge.”

It’s a basic tenet of the sport, but nowhere is it embraced more than in the Big Ten: the offensive guys get the headlines, while the defensive players decide the outcome.

“There’s always been great defenses in this conference. I can’t say that we’re one of those right now,” Fitzgerald, a former All-Big Ten linebacker, said with a laugh. “At the end of the day, yeah, you win championships on defense. There’s no question about that.”

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Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap.

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