According to Longo, Leach was delighted his Air Raid offense — the transcendent scheme he helped launch decades earlier — would finally reach the Big Ten after impacting every other major conference. Longo has used the offense while hopscotching the college ranks, most recently as a coordinator at Ole Miss and North Carolina. He has seen the Air Raid work in a variety of settings, but not the one behind his current office window: Camp Randall Stadium, home to the historically run-heavy Wisconsin Badgers.
For 30 years, the Badgers have won with powerful backs plowing behind gargantuan offensive linemen on clock-eating drives. The Air Raid, marked by quick tempo, receiver-heavy sets and passing proclivity, couldn’t be more different from what the Badgers have done. The first time Wisconsin gets the ball Sept. 2 against Buffalo will mark a watershed of sorts for the program, its fans and the Big Ten.
“It’ll be a little bit of a culture shock, but hopefully [fans] enjoy it,” Longo said. “If we’re scoring points, I think they’ll enjoy it. If we’re winning games, they’ll enjoy it. You have your old-school enthusiasts that don’t want change, but there seems to be a large part of the Wisconsin contingent that has been waiting for a change.”
The seismic shift at Wisconsin is the most noticeable move for a Big Ten offensive landscape whose plates are starting to rattle. Wisconsin is one of two Big Ten programs bringing the Air Raid to the league for the first time this season. Purdue will use it under new coach Ryan Walters and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, a record-setting quarterback for Leach at Texas Tech. Both teams brought in transfer quarterbacks from Texas — Wisconsin’s Tanner Mordecai (SMU) and Purdue’s Hudson Card (Texas) — to lead the units.
Wisconsin and Purdue headline an offensive shake-up that could be exactly what the Big Ten needs. Since 2015, the year after the Big Ten’s last national title, the league has had only two offenses rank in the top 25 in scoring (No. 2 Ohio State, No. 17 Michigan), only one (No. 2 Ohio State) in the top 48 in yards per game, and only two in the top 30 in expected points added (No. 3 Ohio State, No. 24 Michigan).
Big Ten defenses, meanwhile, have thrived during the same span. Five rank among the top 11 in fewest points allowed and five are in the top eight in expected points added. But how much of the defensive success is tied to the offenses they typically face? Perhaps more significant: Are Big Ten offenses adequately preparing their defenses for the College Football Playoff? Michigan was a top-five defense in points and yards allowed entering the CFP, while Ohio State was in the top 15 in both categories. The two allowed 79 offensive points (TCU had two defensive touchdowns) and 1,021 yards in narrow playoff losses to TCU and Georgia.
“Unless you’re playing Ohio State, you’re not going to get exposure to offenses like that,” a Power 5 defensive coordinator outside the Big Ten told ESPN. “Michigan only plays Ohio State once. Six Big Ten teams are in the top 25 defense-wise. Yeah, well a lot of that is because there’s only one or two offenses in the top 25.
“Now it kind of makes sense, once you start seeing through some of the layers.”
More offensive innovation will arrive in 2024 with the expansion additions of USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington. All four teams ranked among the nation’s top six offenses in 2022, while the existing Big Ten produced just one top-20 offense (No. 9 Ohio State) and two in the top 30 (No. 24 Michigan) last season.
“We should have had Michigan and Ohio State in the [national] championship game, so obviously, we’re right there,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “Bringing in a team like USC, you just look at how they recruit and the talent they have, it’s special. Now you’ve got another team that’s going to have that SEC-type talent. UCLA’s not that far behind. That part helps us.
“We’ve got to be able to have the athletes. You get exposed way too fast if you don’t. That’s been the knock in the past, and it’s slowly changing.”
Both Big Ten teams introducing Air Raid offenses to the league this fall are led by head coaches with backgrounds on defense and success within the conference. Wisconsin’s Luke Fickell played for John Cooper at Ohio State and then came up as a Buckeyes defensive assistant under Jim Tressel. From 2002 to 2010, Fickell helped build defenses to complement Ohio State offenses that flaunted typical Big Ten traits — run-based, methodical, often conservative but effective because of elite personnel.
After going 4-8 in his first season as a head coach at Cincinnati, Fickell decided to pivot from his football roots. Then, another revelation came.
“To change from the Jim Tressel [approach] to be more aggressive, to do some things on fourth [down], we had to do that at Cincinnati, but then I realized, I don’t know that I’m excited about staying and always doing the things, the same things you’ve always done,” Fickell said. “I want to win more than anything. A part of the evolution is not a bad thing.”
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Walters spent the past two seasons surveying Big Ten offenses as Illinois’ defensive coordinator. In 2022, Illinois led the nation in scoring defense (12.8 PPG allowed). But when Walters landed his first head-coaching job at Purdue, he picked a scheme that he hadn’t truly seen in the league.
“Philosophically, the general thesis of the conference is: Control the clock, don’t turn the ball over, limit possessions and try to win the game in the fourth quarter, which equals success and that’s been proven,” Walters told ESPN. “But in today’s college football world, you see there are other ways to win games. Obviously, I still am a defensive guy and the goal is to keep points off the board, but I do want to be aggressive on offense and force the issue.”
Bret Bielema has observed Big Ten offenses for most of his adult life: as an Iowa defensive lineman, as a young Hawkeyes defensive assistant, as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator and head coach, and now as head coach at Illinois. Bielema followed Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin and continued using a run-heavy, clock-control, power-based style on offense. He saw the approach lead to overall team success, not only at Wisconsin, which won three straight Big Ten championships under his watch, but at other programs like Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota and, most recently, Michigan. Not surprisingly, he’s taking the same approach at Illinois, which last fall leaned on Chase Brown, the nation’s No. 4 rusher and No. 2 carries leader.
Bielema has categorized Big Ten offenses into those committed to similar schemes and principles, which rarely change much from year to year, and those who diversify. He’s also aware of the major shake-up coming.
“Wisconsin, in particular, you go from one extreme to the other,” he told ESPN. “That was a pro-style offense that was pretty old-school, and now you’re going to have this offense that is completely different from anything they’ve ever done. That’s a premier team in the league, so a big difference.”
A fresh approach likely was needed at Wisconsin, which ranked 90th nationally in scoring and 103rd in offensive plays of 10 yards or longer during the past two seasons. The program has been undeniably consistent, but with an expanded CFP coming in 2024, Wisconsin had to show it could keep up on the scoreboard.
During Longo’s four seasons as North Carolina’s OC, the team ranked fifth nationally in yards per play, sixth in yards per game and 12th in scoring. Last season, quarterback Drake Maye blossomed under Longo, setting single-season records for passing yards (4,321) and completions (342) while cementing himself as a top prospect for the 2024 NFL draft.
Longo’s version of the Air Raid isn’t exactly like Leach’s. He has had several 1,000-yard running backs and productive tight ends, two positions Wisconsin historically features on offense.
Still, the Madison makeover has drawn skepticism, from both within and outside the league. Several coaches and defensive coordinators told ESPN they question whether the system will work at a school that has recruited a certain way for decades. A defensive coordinator called Longo “one of the strangest hires” he had seen in the Big Ten. A Big Ten coach wondered if Wisconsin’s defense, among the nation’s best, would have a harder time preparing for the Big Ten offenses it typically sees after practicing daily against the Air Raid.
Longo has heard it all before.
“There may be those that don’t think we can run it in this league, maybe,” he said. “It’s been proven to be run just about anywhere. That’s what the [Kansas City] Chiefs are doing right now. I look at the Chiefs, and I feel like I’m watching our offense. There’s so much overlap.
“This system is really a part of what everyone’s doing right now.”
The Air Raid’s arrival is the latest phase in what Big Ten coaches consider a mini offensive renaissance, despite the league’s middling national representation.
Former Purdue coach Jeff Brohm brought aggressiveness and innovation to the conference, producing three wins over AP top-three opponents, six top-25 passing offenses in the past seven years (three in the top 15) and a West Division championship last season, before leaving for Louisville. Maryland coach Mike Locksley, who coordinated top-10 rushing offenses early in his career at Illinois, oversaw the nation’s No. 13 pass offense in 2021 and returns one of the nation’s most experienced quarterbacks this season in Taulia Tagovailoa. Locksley came to Maryland from Alabama, where he spent 2017 and 2018 in a coordinator role.
“Some of the branding that the Big Ten had — of being run-the-ball and I-formation — are over-exaggerated,” Locksley told ESPN. “It’s not your mama’s old Big Ten. There’s a ton of teams in this league that know how to throw the ball, that spread you out, that play with speed and tempo. I don’t see a big difference [with the SEC], having been in both leagues, from an offensive standpoint. What we do on offense, it’s the same thing Alabama is doing, the same thing that Georgia is doing.”
There are also more traditional Big Ten offensive schemes that recently have elevated their production, namely Michigan, which has bulldozed its way to consecutive league titles behind a rushing attack that ranks No. 8 nationally since 2021. The Wolverines are No. 7 in scoring during the span.
Nebraska is trying to reclaim its offensive roots under new coach Matt Rhule, especially along the line of scrimmage, after a schematic pivot under Scott Frost never materialized. Penn State and Minnesota are trying to open up their passing games with new quarterbacks — Drew Allar and Athan Kaliakmanis — while maintaining a strong foundation on the ground.
“Change is inevitable,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “You can have traditions of this school used to do this, but that’s why the words ‘used to’ are there, because you’re constantly evolving, you’re constantly changing. Even us. Your identity and your belief as a football coach? I don’t know if that necessarily changes. But you can adapt to how the game is changing and what your team is going to have to do to win more.”