Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Rodriguez brings intrigue to Big Ten

By Jack Bogaczyk
Daily Mail Sports Editor
When the Big Ten Conference reveals its 2008 preseason football poll later this week, Rich Rodriguez's new team isn't likely to be mentioned.

That's because the conference (let's don't embarrass anyone) only reveals the top three finishers of 11 teams. The anointed are likely to be Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois or Penn State.

Michigan, in Rodriguez's debut season after his soap-opera exit from West Virginia, is likely to be a middle-of-the-pack (fifth?) projection.

However, the retooling Wolverines figure to be the Big Ten team with the most intrigue.

Rodriguez is going to bring a different brand of football to a conference that has been slowly trying to open up offenses for years since Red Grange, Alan Ameche and the Woody and Bo Show.

It would be simplistic to say the Big Ten isn't ready for the spread -- after all, Purdue and Northwestern have used versions of it and Illinois Coach Ron Zook did more than OK with a version of it last season.

However, running it is one thing, defending it another -- and Rodriguez's no-huddle spread option is different -- even when the fast tempo isn't part of the equation (and it is). It isn't simply a combination of the old single wing and option, as many spreads are.

The spread is also a great equalizer if you have less talent (see Urban Meyer, pre-Florida, at Utah) -- if you have the speed to run it (which Michigan will recruit to in the future). It also minimizes the need for size and depth.

The conditioning of Rodriguez's West Virginia team was one of the program's main strengths. The zone blocking (and reading) schemes are something the Big Ten hasn't seen much, either. Michigan, as soon as it can morph to quicker, smaller linemen (with quicker feet), will see that.

The blocking is done with lateral movement up front, forcing the defense sideways, and then blocking down to seal off the backside. It's more precision than power, more footwork and technique than size and strength.

While it would be an overstatement to say the former WVU coach could revolutionize Big Ten football as Steve Spurrier once did the Southeastern Conference with his alma mater's spread-'em-out Gators, you could see a lesser version of that.

Whatever notions and feelings Rodriguez torched in leaving his native state, there is no denying he is a superb football coach, and one who gets more from the available talent than most.

The Big Ten is going to find that out. Hey, Michigan saw a dose of it last season in the Appalachian State shocker at the Big House, and that's what other Big Ten teams need to consider.

See, Rodriguez is like another coach Michigan landed from West Virginia -- basketball's John Beilein. Will both be able to recruit better at Michigan than they did at WVU? Sure ... but only if they want to do so.

That's because both are recruiting to proven systems that they have developed, and to which each coach holds the key. Getting a bunch of five-stars wasn't an option for Rodriguez (or Beilein) in Morgantown -- but then his option attack has done pretty well, hasn't it?

After a 3-8 debut at WVU in 2001, his Mountaineers had more success than expected in every season (either in league standings in the early years and major bowls later in his term).

Another flawed notion floating out there is that Rodriguez's spread won't work in the cold, snow-flurried Midwest weather of November ... please. It doesn't get much colder in Ann Arbor, Madison or State College in the 11th month than in Morgantown, Pittsburgh or East Hartford.

That notion is rooted in the fact that many see "spread" and think "pass." Rodriguez's attack couldn't have been more grounded at WVU had it tried -- more than 70 percent of the offensive plays were rushes in recent seasons.

Another facet Michigan will find -- besides keeping the attack on the ground -- from Rodriguez's teams is the attention to ball protection.

His best WVU teams were giants in the turnover tables. That's different from many spread teams, too (because of the ground-oriented style of play).

Rodriguez's last six WVU teams played 40 games with zero or one turnover, and only six games with more than three giveaways. His last four Mountaineer teams were 33-1 when they won or were even in turnover margin.

Playing eight Big Ten foes will be tougher for Rodriguez than the seven he faced in the Big East. His debut includes visits to Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State. The Wolverines' have ND, Wisconsin and Illinois over a four-week span in the first half of the season.

It's impossible for Rodriguez to live up to what a fellow Marion County native did with the Wolverines. A century ago, Fairview's Fielding Yost was already on his way to six national titles, 10 Big Ten championships and 165 wins in 25 seasons at Michigan.

Ultimately, what the Michigan Men (and women) will want from Rodriguez are wins over Ohio State and Rose Bowl or bowl Championship Series appearances (and victories).

It may take some time for Rodriguez to get there, but for starters, it surely will be intriguing -- and different -- for a conference that has been as conservative and classic as Joe Paterno's helmets for a long time.

Charleston Daily Mail

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