P.J. Fleck, Pat Fitzgerald on B1G West Being So Big Tenish this Year

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Saturday sees Northwestern hosting Iowa and Minnesota hosting Illinois. All four teams are “ground-and-pound,” “three yards and a cloud of dust,” “black and blue division” run it straight up the gut type of football. As are the Wisconsin Badgers (obviously, as always), making five of the seven teams in the Big Ten West sides with a run first (and second and third for that matter) kind of mentality.

Purdue and Nebraska are the exceptions, but obviously the latter, traditionally, is synonymous with a run-heavy approach. You certainly have some teams in the Big Ten East with a run-oriented philosophy too. In short, this season, certainly so in the West division, has seen the Big Ten become as Big Tennish, or Big Tenny as ever.

There are a lot of reasons for that, some that the division’s head coaches will be very open about discussing. Then you have some other reasons, which are topics that the respective coaches would rather avoid.

Yes, it’s a league with a lot of huge, elite offensive linemen and plenty of good tailbacks to go around, everywhere. However, the wide receiver play has certainly been better, and the level of quarterbacking is about as low as one could remember in recent years.

Last week saw Minnesota blowout Northwestern 41-14 at their place, in a game that was very fast moving, just like pretty much all Big Ten West games this season.

We asked both coaches involved (Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck) in that game to analyze the Big Ten’s current state, one where the offenses and the overall team philosophies are as conforming to the historical cliches as possible.

“You’ve got to be able to run the ball and stop the run, in order to win in the Big Ten West, let alone the Big Ten,” Fitzgerald said Monday.

“It’s November, this month, this conference, there are so many big games.”

Fitzgerald then got sarcastic:

“The weather is always beautiful, it’s always pristine and perfect, so until you earn the privilege of being in Indianapolis in December (for the Big Ten Title Game), you’re going to have to deal with these elements and a lot of our teams are built that way, they’re different in how they try to do it.”

“But everyone on this side (the Big Ten West) wants to establish the run game and control the line of scrimmage and typically he who does that wins the game and we’ve been on the short end, obviously, this year from a consistency standpoint but I have a firm belief we’ll get better there and it will be a big part of what we do because it opens up your movement, your play action passes, your ability to get it down the field.

“Nobody’s better than that, the last 20 years than the (Iowa) Hawkeyes.”

Minnesota are -14.5 versus Illinois this week, with the ESPN matchup predictor giving them an 84% chance of winning. Northwestern are +12 to Iowa, with ESPN projecting just a 19% chance winning.

“Everybody knows we’re going to run the football,” Fleck said. “I don’t think that is a secret. I don’t think we’re catching anyone off guard by that.”

Fleck, a native of Sugar Grove, IL and graduate of Kaneland high school and Northern Illinois University said he grew up aspiring to be all things Big Ten football.

“I think even Purdue has had a lot of success running the football here and there, and they’re traditionally a pass-first, so once they started running the ball, their offense got even more explosive,” Fleck continued.

“But this is what I dreamed of when I was a little kid. I used to come to Northwestern football games, I was always infatuated with Big Ten football. I never got to play in it, really wasn’t a coach in it. We have an opportunity to be the best league in the country, because it has an identity, not that other conferences don’t, they do.

“But we have an identity, it’s October, November, December in the Midwest and that’s where I grew up, and you just don’t know what kind of weather you’re going to get. That’s what we’ve always been about.

“You have to be able to run the football, we know people are going to do all they can to try and take it away, and we just have to be creative enough to find schemes to be able to move the football down the field.”‘

You can only expect the Big Ten West teams to get even more Big Tenny or Big Tennish down the stretch of the season here.

Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Bank (TheSportsBank.Net) and author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” as well as “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”

He has regularly appeared in WGNSports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune, and co-hosts the After Extra Time podcastFollow him on Twitter and Instagram

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