Penn State and Big Ten fans everywhere surely have thought or said the following at some point: They don’t play any defense in the Big 12.
Week after week, for years, watching Big 12 football often has been like watching a pinball machine — with score after score after score, and offenses lighting up defenses that seem completely overmatched.
Those Big 12 offenses have been highly innovative, no doubt, with many such as Oklahoma, Baylor, Oklahoma State and others putting up huge statistics and lots of points.
But how much of it has been that the offenses have been so awesome, or that the defenses have been pretty suspect? (Yes, the real answer is probably a combination of both.)
New Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich had tremendous success as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator from 2013-18, with his Cowboys’ offense lighting up Big 12 defenses. This is from PSU’s press release when Yurcich was hired:
Yurcich was the architect of one of Oklahoma State’s greatest offensive eras as the program averaged 38.0 points and 478.3 yards per game in his six-year stint as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2013-18. OSU scored 40 or more points 35 times and 50 or more points 15 times under Yurcich. In Yurcich’s six years, OK State ranked fifth nationally in passing yards per game (315.9 ypg), seventh in total offense (478.6 ypg) and sixth in scoring. During his tenure in Stillwater, the Cowboys were 52-34 with four 10-win seasons, four bowl victories and two New Year’s Six appearances (2016 Sugar Bowl and 2014 Cotton Bowl).
Yurcich left Oklahoma State after the 2018 season and was Ohio State’s passing game coordinator and QB coach in 2019, working with star Justin Fields. Then Yurcich went back to the Big 12 last season as offensive coordinator at Texas.
Yurcich is in an interesting position of having spent time at powerhouse Big 12 and Big Ten programs. So, I asked him to compare defenses between the two conferences when we spoke to him earlier this month.
“Without going into too many football talk or jargon,” Yurcich said, “I mean, they’re either gonna play two high and you’re gonna try to run the football, or they’re gonna play one high and they got too many guys and you’re gonna have to run option or you’re going to have to throw the ball. And then, sometimes you’re gonna say the heck with it, we’re gonna run on the extra guy and you either make them miss or run through ’em. And there’s a time for that, too.
“But basically it’s the same thing. There’s eight gaps, you gotta try to fill all eight gaps. If they’re playing two safeties high, they’re bound to gap run the ball, and there’s a lot of carryover conference to conference, defense to defense.”
We could pick any season to compare Big 12 and Big Ten offenses vs. defenses, and you’d probably see most of the same thing. Looking at the 2020 season, we found this from the Big 12 and this from the Big Ten:
**Seven Big 12 teams averaged more than 400 yards per game. Only three Big Ten teams (Ohio State, Penn State and Maryland) averaged more than 400. That stat alone speaks to both the offensive tendencies in the Big 12 and the weaker defenses.
**Two Big 12 teams (Oklahoma and Texas) averaged more than 40 points, and three more (Iowa State, TCU, Oklahoma State) averaged more than 30. Ohio State was the only Big Ten team to average more than 40 points, with Iowa (31.8) a distant second and PSU (29.8) third.
Clearly, Big 12 teams move the ball much more effectively and score more points.
James Franklin has known Yurcich for many years and has seen how the coordinator has enjoyed great success. Franklin knows that if Penn State is going to compete for College Football Playoff berths, the offense is going to have be much more explosive than it has been the past couple of years — and get back to more of what the Lions showed under Joe Moorhead in 2016.
Wrapping up his comparison between the Big 12 and Big Ten defenses, Yurcich had this to say about schemes.
“I think a lot of people are multiple and the fact that they can play three down and four down and be able to interchange throughout the game of what front they’re giving you. So, it makes you communicate all that much more, and it makes your job more difficult from a run fit standpoint, from your blocking rules all the way to your protections.
“And so the game really hasn’t changed. I mean, it’s a little bit different, but there’s only two coverages that you can play — it’s either man or it’s zone. It’s either one high or two high.”