Big Ten defenses flourishing behind big boys up front
Big Ten defenses are putting up some of their best numbers in years, and coaches give credit to the guys up front.
The league's 14 teams have combined to allow 22.4 points a game, a drop from the 2014 full-season average of 26.0 and on track to be the third-lowest figure since 2000, according to STATS.
''The defensive lines across the conference have been very impressive, very stout,'' Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Michigan (9.3 ppg) and Wisconsin (11.1) rank first and second nationally in scoring defense, and four other Big Ten teams are among the top 26. Five of the top 19 rushing defenses, six of the top 22 pass defenses and seven of the top 28 total defenses are from the Big Ten.
None of that surprises Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, who has spent 26 of his 38 years in coaching in the conference.
''There are other parts of the country where scoring takes a premium,'' he said. ''Being in this conference for quite some time, historically you've seen a lot of good defensive play that I think has been a trademark of the league.''
The Big Ten is having a particularly good year in the trenches.
''The type of people the Big Ten recruits are hard-working, athletic, strong and hard-nosed,'' Wisconsin defensive end Chikwe Obasih said, ''so I think it's the type of athletes they recruit and the kids really take it to heart.''
Five Big Ten teams are averaging better than three sacks a game. Penn State's Carl Nassib leads the nation with 12.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss and Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun has eight sacks and 10.5 TFLs.
Other linemen who have been impressive are Ohio State's Joey Bosa, Tyquan Lewis and Adolphus Washington, Michigan's Willie Henry, Iowa's Nate Meier and Drew Ott before he tore his ACL, Maryland's Yannick Ngakoue, Indiana's Nick Mangieri and Nebraska's Maliek Collins.
Northwestern end Dean Lowery turned in the Big Ten's top individual performances last week against Nebraska with two sacks and 10 tackles, including a school-record six TFLs that were the most in the conference in 10 years.
NFL draft prognosticators expect Big Ten defensive linemen to be well represented in the next couple of drafts.
''I think there are excellent defensive players in this league,'' Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. ''Second, the coaching, schematically each week it's got a different wrinkle. Every week you're facing a top-10 defense or top-15 defense, so players No. 1 and scheme No. 2.''
Penn State is particularly blessed up front. Coach James Franklin said the key for his team is having a line that can rotate eight players, a strong position coach in Sean Spencer and an experienced defensive coordinator in Bob Shoop.
''We have a two-deep on the defensive line that are really good football players and play hard and play within the scheme,'' Franklin said. ''We've moved some guys around to spots to be successful. They've embraced it. It's been fun.''
Freelance writer Dennis Semrau in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed.
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org