By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
DALLAS — The miracle workers still believe in defense.
Mike Gundy, Kliff Kingsbury and Charlie Weis will have a problem with that characterization, and yet, believe me, take the Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas coaches at their word and they’re being treated fairly.
Monday, the first five met the masses for Big 12 football media days: OSU, Kansas State, TCU, Texas Tech and KU.
As always, the season still more than a month away, it wasn’t a great chance to learn too much about anybody’s team. Still, taking a program’s temperature can be an interesting thing and, as Monday again confirmed, if you want a coach to go deep on a subject, the after-lunch media days breakout sessions are your very best chance (unless you’re talking to Weis, who’ll tell you what he really thinks every second of every day).
At issue was defense.
Will it always be playing catch-up to so many high-powered offenses in our midst?
Has what we think of as dominant defense been left to antiquity?
Have we reached the point that giving up 400 yards and 25 points per outing against quality competition might be considered terrific?
So you know, Oklahoma allowed 398.3 yards and 25.5 points per game last season (but those numbers were 37.7 and 515 against the best teams on the Sooner schedule: K-State, Notre Dame, Baylor, West Virginia, OSU, Texas A&M).
Only Kansas State’s Bill Snyder and TCU’s Gary Patterson came down defensively, believing the pendulum will swing back toward the defenders at some future point (Snyder) or that good coaching and good players on one side of the ball can still shut down a good offense on the other side of the ball (Patterson).
Though in Monday’s minority, Snyder and Patterson demand your attention. One produced the Manhattan Miracle and the other has very nearly done the same elsewhere, though it’s hard to work Fort Worth into a memorably miraculous phrase.
First, the other side.
“Take the top 50 defenses in the country and how many of them are going to … keep you under 350 or 300 yards a game and keep you under 16 points?” Gundy asked. “I’ll bet not very many of them.”
The Poke coach said defenses have made some strides, but also for good.
“I don’t think we’re going to go back to defenses dominating games … You may have a really good defense and give up on average 25 points a game in this league,” he said.
Weis doesn’t see a whole lot changing without the way college football is officiated changing. Because not only is it all the new-fangled offenses that have sprung up since Mike Leach and Hal Mumme made Kentucky relevant for the first and only time way back when in the SEC, but how those offenses have matched groundbreaking schemes with groundbreaking tempo.
“Do they slow down the tempo of offense when you can snap the ball?” Weis said. “Do they have a referee stand over the ball until the defense is ready. I think if they do that, it will slow down the pace of scoring.”
Leach came to OU from Kentucky before leaving Norman for Lubbock, where his first quarterback was Kingsbury, whose stratospheric rise in the coaching profession has him running the Red Raiders at the ripe old age of 33.
Kingsbury believes we must alter the way we think about defense.
“We have to change our image of your great defense,” he said. “With teams running 80 or 90 plays, you’re going to (give up) yards, it’s just the nature of the game.
“You’ve got to be good at turning people over and holding them to field goals in the red zone. But for people to think you’re going to hold people to 230 yards and nine points a game playing against these great offenses every week, that’s just not reality.”
Whether you believe him or not, just how he thinks about it is plenty impressive. Like, oh, yeah, no wonder he’s won 84 games his last eight seasons.
For one thing, his offense isn’t running a hurry-up scheme, so his defense isn’t facing quite as many snaps. TCU opponents snapped the ball 65.8 times per game last season. Yet, far more than that, he refuses to give in.
Three seasons ago at the Rose Bowl, the Horned Frogs beat a Wisconsin team that had scored 83, 48 and 70 points in its previous three games 21-19.
In 2004, Patterson reminded everyone that Leach’s Red Raiders turned a 21-0 deficit into a 70-35 victory against the Horned Frogs, yet the next time the two teams met, in 2006, TCU prevailed 12-3.
“The key is to manage the game,” he said.
That means two things.
One, it means putting in extra time in the spring and summer for the unique offensive teams on your schedule. Like this year, TCU opens against LSU, now the very rare traditional team that lines up offensively with two running backs and a tight end on the field.
The last five days of spring football for TCU, Patterson said, was about getting ready for LSU.
“I’m going to work on them a lot more so that our kids can adjust to it,” he said.
Second, it means coaching proactively. Patterson said TCU coaches defense the way most programs coach offense. While opposing offenses are trying to call the right plays, Patterson is trying to do the same thing defensively.
“What happens with the fast pace is (offenses) get people into playing their base defense and, when they can find you, it’s hard to get them in second-and-long because they’re winning the battles,” he said. “If they have 60 plays, I feel that I have to have 30 (better) calls (than the offense). I’m going to cut it down to where they only get 30 chances of having a big play (because) I have 30 calls better than your 30 calls. That’s the way I approach defense.”
TCU lost six games last season but still held OU to 24 points, Kansas State to 23, Michigan State to 17 and Texas to 13.
Snyder believes defenses are bound to make a comeback. That’s been the history of the game, and “I think there will come a time where that probably happens with the uptempo game,” he said.
Then he explained why it hasn’t happened yet.
“It’s a lot more involved because it’s not just X’s and O’s … it’s about conditioning of the young people in the program because it’s an uptempo game,” Snyder said, “it’s about the mental processing of the young people, who (must) do it rapidly because of the tempo of the game, it’s about having the personnel in your program to have quality depth.”
Of course, whether Snyder’s right or wrong, he may already be right from where he sits in Manhattan. A year ago, K-State didn’t give up 30 points until the season’s ninth game, the day the Wildcats beat OSU 44-30.
K-State was blown out by Baylor and allowed 35 points to Oregon at the Fiesta Bowl. Still, nobody played better defense in the conference longer than K-State managed last season.
So, is dominant shut-down defense a thing of the past?
Perhaps, but it does you no good to think so.