These 5 B1G units will be under heavy scrutiny in 2022
Every team strives to improve in the offseason, but there are certain areas that require more attention than others. These units need to up their game in a significant way in 2022, or else teams with enough talent to compete for division, conference and national titles will fall short — and the failure of one in particular could result in a coach losing his job.
Here are 5 Big Ten units that will be under the microscope in 2022 because of how their failures cost their respective programs in 2021:
5. Penn State offense
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich was brought in to jumpstart Penn State’s offense, but it was an uneven season, to be kind. Penn State failed to top 400 yards in 6 of its final 8 games. There were 67 FBS teams (which means more than half) to average at least 400, and that group does not include Penn State, which had the No. 83 offense this season. With the talent Penn State had on that side of the ball and Yurcich’s credentials, that seems unfathomable.
It was one-dimensional, as the Nittany Lions never figured out the run game. They averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry in only 3 of 13 games. A go-to running back never emerged, and as a result, Penn State has a 16-game streak without a 100-yard rusher heading into next season. And now Penn State loses its top offensive player, wideout Jahan Dotson, who seemed to always get open and make this offense look better than it actually was.
It remains to be seen whether a very good defense will take a step back with defensive coordinator Brent Pry leaving to take the Virginia Tech job, but the onus will be on the offense to figure it out. Assuming Sean Clifford wins the job, it’ll be his fourth year starting. There is still talent at wideout with Parker Washington, and there will be options at running back with leading rusher Keyvone Lee back, as well as true freshman Nicholas Singleton, who was the Gatorade National Player of the Year.
4. Wisconsin offense
Wisconsin easily allowed the fewest yards per game in the country in 2021, yet it lost 4 games. And it’s no mystery how that happened. Paul Chryst’s team struggled offensively, ranking 88th nationally in yards per game. And it’s fair to wonder where they would’ve been if true freshman running back Braelon Allen hadn’t emerged as a bona fide star midway through the season and rescued the offense.
Chryst is hiring a new offensive coordinator and relieving himself of those duties, and hopefully that will be what Wisconsin needs to get on track. The passing game is a concern, and I understand the difficulties of playing in the colder weather. But Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre seemed to do just fine.
With Wisconsin losing 3 starting linebackers, it’s time for the offense to pick up the slack, for once, and lead the way next season.
3. Iowa offense
My sense is that Iowa fans are very unhappy with the continued struggles on offense. Even in a season in which they won the West, it felt like the Hawkeyes left a lot on the table due to their inability to generate consistent offense without the help of their defense and special teams (the Hawkeyes had the second-best average starting field position in the country). Iowa had 3 passing touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season. It had 4 offensive touchdowns in the final 4 games of the season.
One of the biggest issues on offense, aside from QB struggles, was offensive line play. The Hawkeyes allowed 96 tackles for losses, which ranked 119th nationally. For a program that typically produces quality offensive linemen, and will have a first-round lineman this season in center Tyler Linderbaum, that was strange to see.
Kirk Ferentz is obviously a very good coach, which is why he’s the longest-tenured FBS head coach. But is it fair to wonder if he has a bit of a blind spot with the offense, since his son is offensive coordinator? If there are no changes or adjustments made this offseason after having the No. 121 offense, it’s fair to assume that is the case.
Putting just an average offense out there with the talent Iowa has returning on defense changes the entire dynamic of the 2022 season. The pressure is on Brian Ferentz to figure it out.
2. Ohio State defense
It’s quite clear that the Buckeyes will have a national title-worthy offense. Considering the amount of resources they’ve poured into that side of the ball and the talent they’ve amassed, that’s not a bold statement. Whether Ohio State can regain its perch atop the Big Ten and contend for a national title will depend on the defense. Ohio State’s defense got shredded 3 times, none of those against a top-20 offense. Even with the No. 1 offense in the country, the Buckeyes are going to have trouble winning against top-tier offenses if they can’t get stops. Their best linebacker this year was a converted running back, Steele Chambers. Their best cornerback was a true freshman, Denzel Burke. It was a flawed defense.
That’s a lot to live up to for new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, but Ohio State would’ve been hard-pressed to find a better replacement for Kerry Coombs. Knowles’ defense at Oklahoma State ranked in the top 5 nationally in yards allowed per game, yards allowed per play, run defense, first downs allowed, sacks, tackles for loss and third-down conversion rate. Ohio State was awful on third down this season, which is an area Knowles should be able to fix.
1. Nebraska special teams
Roll through each of Nebraska’s 9 losses, and there was likely a special teams moment that either contributed to the outcome or directly led to it. And it wasn’t just one area, either. Nebraska was awful at receiving kicks, making kicks and allowing kicks to be returned for touchdowns. Per The Athletic:
(Nebraska) missed eight field goals, the most of any team that attempted fewer than 19, and four extra points. Opponents returned a kickoff, a punt and a punt block for touchdowns and a PAT for two points. Nebraska surrendered a safety on special teams. It fumbled two punts and muffed a fair catch on a kickoff.
According to the Fremeau Efficiency Index, which measures special teams play, Nebraska ranked 129th nationally. It hasn’t been in the top 100 in Frost’s tenure. It isn’t surprising that the top 2 teams in the country using this metric, Michigan and Iowa, played in the Big Ten Championship Game. Iowa, especially, excels in special teams and completed an unlikely comeback in Lincoln thanks to special teams.
Nebraska was one of the toughest 3-9 teams in college football, with all 9 defeats coming by single digits. The Huskers had the No. 2 offense in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game, and their defense was really good. The missing link is special teams.
The hope is that new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple and transfer QB Casey Thompson will elevate the offense. But even if the offense and defense perform similarly to last year, simply improving on special teams makes Nebraska a bowl team, and thus likely means Scott Frost keeps his job. If Nebraska is again one of the worst teams in the country in this area, it likely spells doom for Frost.
Frost finally hired a full-time special teams coordinator in Bill Busch, and that should improve the quality of play in that phase. Not doing so until Year 5 was a glaring oversight on Frost’s part and is certainly part of the reason that Nebraska finds itself without a bowl appearance since 2016.
Busch, an analyst with Nebraska in 2021, should have an in-depth knowledge of Nebraska’s roster already and provide hope that this glaring weakness no longer hampers the Huskers, and perhaps, one day becomes a strength.