Commentary

Ground and pound carries Big East

Originally Published: August 26, 2010
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com

When Dave Wannstedt went around speaking at various football clinics this offseason, he figured most people would want to know about his defensive philosophy. After all, that's how Wannstedt built his reputation, winning Super Bowls as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator and using many of the same schemes at Pitt.

[+] EnlargeJordan Todman
Arthur Anderson/Icon SMIUConn's Jordan Todman ran for more than 1,000 yards last season despite splitting carries with Andre Dixon.

But the opposite happened. Most of the high school coaches Wannstedt encountered pressed him for details on his offense, a surprising development to a guy who wasn't exactly known for dynamic attacks during his NFL head coaching stints. Specifically, those coaches asked about the Pitt running game and how Dion Lewis ran for nearly 1,800 yards in 2009.

"I think the trend in college football is turning back a little bit to tailbacks and the running game," Wannstedt said. "Alabama won the national championship doing what we do -- running the ball. I think the trend the next few years will be getting back to some old-fashioned football like we have in our conference."

We'll see if that happens. But one thing is clear: The Big East should present a harmony of handoffs in 2010.

Just look at who's back from last season. Half the league's eight schools return 1,000-yard rushers -- Lewis, West Virginia's Noel Devine, Connecticut's Jordan Todman and Syracuse's Delone Carter. That's more 1,000-yard backs from 2009 than any other Big Six conference returns. Throw in Louisville's Victor Anderson, who topped 1,000 yards in 2008 before injuries derailed his sophomore season, and the Big East has five runners with a quadruple-digit season on their résumés. Only the 12-team ACC matches that number among the major conferences.

And chew on this: Every Big East team brings back its top rusher from a year ago.

"This is not a pass-first league," West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas said. "Teams like to run the ball in our conference."

It's true that a pass-happy team -- Cincinnati -- has won the last two Big East titles. But the rulers have been the exception. Elsewhere in the league, the run usually comes first.

Pitt has its dominant power run game. West Virginia built its foundation on the spread option, and though that offense has changed, highlight machine Devine still fuels the engine. UConn went to a no-huddle last year but remains a ground-oriented offense -- the Huskies had a 2,000-yard rusher in 2008 (Donald Brown) and two 1,000-yarders in '09 (Todman and Andre Dixon).

Greg Schiano's philosophy at Rutgers revolves around defense and the running game. Skip Holtz is placing more emphasis on the backfield in South Florida after the Bulls relied for years almost solely on their quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeDion Lewis
Tim Steadman/Icon SMIPitt's Dion Lewis leads a plethora of talented Big East running backs.

Syracuse leans on its tailbacks, while Louisville is switching to a Florida-based spread that will use the running backs in a variety of ways.

"The running game is as good as I've seen it in this league," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. "If there's a league with better backs in the country, I'd like to see it."

The Big East is also unusual for its high number of low standing backs. Devine, Todman and Anderson are all listed at 5-foot-9 or under. Lewis is maybe 5-7. Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead, who averaged 6.7 yards per carry last year, is 5-10. But what they lack in height, they make up for in strength and shiftiness.

"They remind me a lot of the backs I've seen in the NFL," said Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, who was the New Orleans Saints' offensive coordinator in 2006-08. "They're explosive, fast, quick, strong and powerful. It's exciting to watch them on film against other teams. You just don't want to watch them against yourself."

Unfortunately for Big East coaches, there's really no choice but to try to figure out how to stop such an impressive array of ballcarriers.

"Every week, it seems like we play against a team with a great running back," Pitt defensive end Greg Romeus said.

Brian Bennett covers college football for ESPN.com.