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Bad Defense? No, Give The Offense Credit
October 04, 2012
By Wendell Barnhouse | Correspondent

The 3,160 points scored in last Saturday's 52 college football game was the second-most in a single day since 1937. In four games involving seven Big 12 teams Saturday, there were 287 points scored. That's nine percent of the overall point total.

The Big 12 would like to say this: IT'S NOT OUR FAULT.

Highlighted by West Virginia's 70-63 track meet with Baylor and then supported by Texas defeating Oklahoma State 41-36, the Big 12 received national attention for its offensive brilliance. The knock on the Big 12 in recent years is that the use of pass-oriented spread offensive schemes has gone hand-in-hand with an indifference toward defense.

Translation No. 1: The Big 12 doesn't play Big Boy Football. Correspondent Wendell Barnhouse and Gary Reasons, analysts on FSN’s Big 12 Showcase, joined host Emily Jones to discuss the proliferation and domination of offense in college football.

Translation No. 2: You can't win national championships without playing Big Boy Football.

But Saturday pointed out a national trend. Pass-oriented spread offenses are proliferating and scoring is up. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoop described the West Virginia-Baylor final score as a "nightmare." The bad dreams (if that's what they are) are spreading.

While the nation was buzzing about the Mountaineers and the Bears playing to a 35-35 halftime draw, later in the day Tennessee and Georgia were just 10 points shy of that total at halftime. The Bulldogs pulled away from the 30-30 tie to win 51-44 in a game that produced over 1,000 yards in offense. In the defensive-oriented Southeastern Conference, that final score is blasphemous.

Through five weeks, SEC defenses have already surrendered 50-plus points four times, one more than all of last season. It's only happened on average 3.4 times over the past 10 seasons. In Saturday's 52 games, 51 teams scored at least 30 points. 13 teams from nine different conferences allowed 30 points … and won. The current pace of 30.5 points averaged per team in FBS would surpass the record by almost three points.

It's not just the Big 12 where teams are turning scoreboards into pinball machines. Give some credit to the offense, not only in the Big 12 but around the country.

Your Humble Correspondent covered the Baylor-West Virginia game. YHC's untrained eyes didn't see that many missed tackles. YHC's eyes can't discern with certainty when coverage was blown. YHC eyes saw that the skill players on both teams, the offensive schemes and the play calling would have befuddled 99 percent of the defenses in college football.

Tuesday morning, YHC had an epiphany. In the late 1960s, Texas started a trend with the Wishbone. UT, Oklahoma and Alabama all used the ground-pounding scheme to win national championships. The spread-the-field passing attacks are the modern-day Wishbone.

The Wishbone was predicated on the triple option. Quarterback under center, fullback a yard behind him, two halfbacks split a yard behind the fullback. The QB would take the snap, turn and he and the fullback would briefly have simultaneous possession of the ball as the QB read the defense. He would either let the fullback keep the ball for a dive play or keep it himself.

If the QB kept the ball, he'd move down the line of scrimmage. At the "corner" he would keep the ball and turn up field or make a last-second pitch to one of the trailing halfbacks with the other halfback usually a lead blocker.

FOX college football analyst Charles Davis agreed with YHC's Wishbone analogy.

"The Wishbone was all about balance, it could be run in either direction and prevented the defense from stacking its defense," Davis said. "The offense would get an advantage in numbers on the corner. Now we're seeing a similar situation with the offense overloading one side with receivers, overloading an area with pass patterns."

We now have the quintuple option. Five wide receivers running pass routes on a field that is 53 yards wide. Instead of a pitch at the line of scrimmage, passes are being thrown 10, 20, 30 yards down field. It's new math: one blown assignment or one missed tackle equals six points.

"The nature of today's offenses is putting athletes in space and that is just harder to stop than the old style of "phone booth" football," said Joel Klatt, who was the FX analyst for Saturday's Baylor-West Virginia game. "In the past if one of your defenders made a mistake the play would go for an additional five to 10 yards, however now with those players having to be responsible for more space their mistakes have been magnified because it is not five to 10 more yards - the ball ends up in the end zone."

No. 7 West Virginia plays at No. 9 Texas Saturday on FOX. On this week's Big 12 coaches teleconference, Mack Brown was effusive in his praise of the Mountaineers' offense that UT defensive coordinator Manny Diaz must scheme to stop.

"We usually meet as a staff on Mondays before this call," Brown said. "I went looking for Manny. His door was closed. I think he was hiding under his desk."

That's about as funny as two teams combing for 133 points.

"The way the game has changed with the attacking of space and tempo with which it's done has made defense harder than ever," Diaz said this week. "The conference now is so balanced. Everybody can play and just about everybody can score. Everybody's got a triggerman (quarterback). When you've got a triggerman, you've got a chance. I've been saying that forever."

Davis believes there is a confluence of developments that have led us to this tipping point where it appears the offenses have the edge on the defenses.

Grass Roots Development
Starting as early as grade school football, pitch and catch has replaced run and tackle. More high schools – particularly in the talent-rich state of Texas – are running spread offenses and developing multi-talented quarterbacks. There is also more year-round development with national seven-on-seven tournaments that are all about quarterbacks and receivers.

"All of this helps players develop at a young age, but they are developing into one area and not on the defensive side," Klatt said. "When was the last time you saw a high school team compete in a 3rd down pass rush summer league?  Never."

Player Safety
Head and spinal injuries have become a bigger issue and the rules are reflecting the effort to make a sport of high-speed collisions as safe as possible. On both sides of the ball, coaches value speed above size. With the players spread out over the entire field, full-speed collisions have increased (that's one of the main reasons for the rule change that moved kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line).

The rules have changed regarding the targeting of a defenseless player and plus contact aimed at the helmet. A safer game is better but a safer gamer makes it tougher for a defense.

"A few years ago, if a team wanted to throw a lot of short passes for completions, the defense could try to punish the receivers with hard hits and make them pay for every completion," Davis said. "Now, you have to be very careful not to hit a defenseless player or hit above the shoulders. Same thing with quarterbacks. You could blitz a passing team a lot and say you're gonna punish the quarterback. That's harder to do now."

Tackling: A Lost Art
Emphasis on player safety and the desire to reduce injuries have caused coaches to cut back in full contact in practice. The old saying is you play like you practice. If the majority of practices aren't full speed and if it's more touch than tackle, then that tends to lead to defensive lapses – missed tackles – in games.

In its last two games that saw its defense allow a total of 67 points, Texas missed nearly two dozen tackles. And this is a UT defense that is so talented it is considered as potentially one of the best in the nation.

Offenses spread the field to create space and to create one-on-one matchups between the ball carrier and the tackler. Coaches say that tackling "in space" is one of the toughest tasks on defense. And when you don't practice a task, it's difficult to master it.

"You don't have as much contact in practice," Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said. "Obviously what you're going to lack is your [tackling] fundamentals. You can teach technique but the best athletes tackle well. A lot of these high school coaches are putting their best athletes with their spread offenses. You don't have as many athletes on defense."

Talent Tilted Toward Offense
Former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino had 18 wide receivers on the roster before he lost his job last spring. With a maximum of 85 scholarships, that's 21 percent of the roster devoted to pass catchers. The Razorbacks, by the way, rank 116th in total defense in this week's NCAA statistics.

In 2004, Ted Ginn, Jr. was selected as the 2004 USA Today Defensive Player of the Year. He spent his career at Ohio State as a wide receiver.

"Kenny Easley (a three-time consensus All-American safety at UCLA) would be playing wide receiver," Davis said. "Ronnie Lott (a consensus All-American safety at USC) would be playing wide receiver. Coaches these days are putting their better players on offense."

Dreamy Schemes
The factors listed – player development, player safety, eroding tackling skills, better players on offense – all contribute to the edge the offense apparently has.

Offensive coaches are taking those advantages and drawing up plays, formations and game plans that keep defensive coordinators sleepless from Seattle to Miami.

Baylor plays a 3-4-4 scheme and against West Virginia used just its defensive linemen to pressure quarterback Geno Smith. It produced no sacks and just one knock down. Smith produced eight touchdowns, 656 yards and 45 completions in 51 attempts. The Bears had eight defenders in pass coverage but four were linebackers.

What's a D-coordinator to do? Play eight defensive backs? Few teams have that many experienced or talented DBs; and against that alignment, the offense will probably run the ball. So, pressure the quarterback. Fine. Blitz two players from your coverage … if the pressure doesn't reach the quarterback, he'll find a receiver one-on-one or wide open or if he breaks containment he might scramble for 20 yards.

"You're constantly in a conflict in how you disperse," Diaz said. "If you leave them all one on one you'll have a bad day. If you give them some help, you're going to have trouble stopping the run. That's in part what the game has come down to. The offense has found ways to create space, which creates one on ones. No matter who you are one-on-one opportunities will make for missed tackles."

The formations and the play calls are challenging but the speed of the game adds another later of complication that can lead to confusion. Baylor ran an offensive play every 17 seconds of its possession time. Teams that run the spread attack are hoping to run 80 to 90 plays. When the offense plays fast, it's more difficult for the defense to substitute. Tired defenders make mistakes.

In Summation
As the 2012 season rolls into its second month, high-scoring offense has grabbed the headlines. That doesn't set well with the conference that has won the last six national championships in part because its best teams win with patient, ground-oriented attacks and unyielding defense.

But now we've got SEC coaches seeing teams in their conference scoring more than two touchdowns a game and asking "Is this what we want football to be?" (Alabama's Nick Saban, this week.)

YHC's answer is: yes. Defense might well win championships but offense sells tickets. And because only one team gets to claim the crystal football each season, all the others might as well score a bunch of points and sell a bunch of tickets. The alternative is having college football battling C-Span for viewers.

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