A few months ago, I started compiling numbers for something I was going to call the "trend watch," tracking the shifts in run:pass ratio as far back as I could track them (since the official NCAA stats are only online back to 2000, that’s a clean enough cutoff), but I only got through the Big Ten passing statistics before I abandoned the idea, mainly because there’s been such little quantifiable change over the last seven years in Big Ten passing. But the numbers have been sitting here on my desktop for all this time, and as I kick off Big Ten week, why not put them to some use?
You’ll still here the occasional commentator reference "Big Ten Football," or, more specifically, "Michigan/Ohio State/Penn State/Wisconsin/Iowa/Minnesota Football," with unmistakable undertones of nostalgic respect for the mud-caked, schlobberknocking stylings of Schembechler and Hayes, manly men who molded men by teaching them to play in the manly fashion of the men who were manly men before them, i.e. three yards and a cloud of dust, etc. Nobody would seriously suggest since Joe Tiller brought the spread to Purdue from the Western hinterlands (followed by Northwestern’s unique run-based version) that the old two-back model is so immutable these days, but it does still seem to serve as the starting point for anyone looking to assess the "identity" of the preeminent "cold weather league" – see, for an anecdotal example, the conference’s intro in this year’s Sporting News annual, where it’s described as "the ultimate old school conference" whose run-first mentality surely means "[s]omewhere, Woody Hayes is smiling. Bo Schembechler, too," along with a list of the conference’s great runners from Ron Dayne to Red Grange.
I wish I could go back to Red Grange, or get somebody to do that for me, but the seven seasons since sad sack Purdue made the Rose Bowl (a year after the great Dayne’s graduation, perhaps not coincidentally) will do well enough. Taken alone, the passing numbers since 2000 indicate TSN is right: the Big Ten isn’t throwing the ball more, or better, than it was at the start of the decade:
Quarterbacks have become more accurate, but not much deadlier on the whole. Otherwise, these numbers are boringly flat and tell us nothing without a little context:
One most noticeable is that 2004 was the worst year for offenses on both ends, and 2005 by far the hardest on defense from both ends, just based on the level of those respective units in those years. 2005, in fact, is the real outlier to not only the league s overall offensive production but also, to a slightly less degree, to the the broader trend. In case you don’t notice:
So, in the ever-shifting rock-paper-scissors of playcalling, Big Ten teams are slowly but surely turning more often to the air, a trend that figures to continue as Minnesota shifts to a Northwestern-y spread that, while still hoping to establish the run the same way coordinator Mike Dunbar did with Damien Anderson and Tyrell Sutton in Evanston, generally – call it NFL trickle down – as quarterbacks and receivers continue to become more specialized earlier and earlier in their careers. Keep in mind also that these numbers encompass all games, including those against the MAC and other mid-majors that tend to feature more running at the end of a blowout, so the numbers in conference games are likely to show even greater balance. Outgunned teams like Indiana, for example, following the lead of the Boilers and Wildcats, are likely to increasingly find the going easier against more physically dominant defenses by "finessing" them, as it were, than by trying to plow into stacked fronts behind overmatched linemen.
This moment in benign and fairly obvious academic findings has been brought to you by...not so fast, my friend!
More passing, less scoring? Woody would be smiling about that, and also because he probably just punched your spread-loving, jacket-wearing, pansy ass out cold.
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I tried to look at scoring margins in conference games as well, but they’ve fluctuated around the two touchdown per game mark with no rhyme or reason, at least when put next to the increasing passing stats. Average scoring in all games, though, is down by as much as field goal (again, 2005 was just a weirdly explosive year) from earlier, slightly more run-focused season this decade. Could that be because more passing leads to more turnovers, by either interception or goofy quarterbacking under pressure? If defensive coordinators know, they’re not telling.