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Is too much offense good for college football?

Caleb TerBush
Caleb TerBush

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For more on college athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

Scoring blitz puts heat on defenses

Thursday, October 04, 2012 12:01 am
Don't tell Kawann Short that offenses have an edge over defenses. Sure, we're coming off the second-highest scoring day in college football history (more in a moment), but Purdue's senior defensive tackle concedes nothing.“Lots of offensive coordinators have found a way to get points on the board,” he says, “but I wouldn't say they have an edge on the defense.”

He pauses, like a comedian ready to deliver a punch line.

“Sometimes the defense scores points, too,” he says with a smile.

In fact, Purdue scored a pair of defensive touchdowns in last Saturday's 51-41 victory over Marshall. Cornerbacks Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson both returned interceptions for touchdowns.

That, however, was a rarity on a weekend that featured college football's biggest offensive output (60.8 points a game) since 1937.

For instance, West Virginia beat Baylor 70-63 while combining for 1,507 yards. Georgia beat Tennessee 51-45 with a total of 1,038 yards. Texas beat Oklahoma State 41-36 and combined for 1,016 yards. Miami of Ohio beat Akron 56-49 while combining for 1,334 yards.

“Football is a game of momentum,” IU quarterbacks coach/assistant offensive coordinator Kevin Johns says. “What happens is at times when the offense gets on a roll, the defense gets on its heels. That makes it tough for a defense to take a deep breath and dig its heels in the ground. Sometimes you get them backpedaling and keep them backpedaling the whole game.”

Backpedaling has gone on all season. Oklahoma State leads the nation in scoring at 55.75 points, just below the record of 56.0 set by Army in 1944. Baylor is second at 54.25. Six teams average at least 51.0 points. Twenty teams average at least 40.0.

Nebraska leads the Big Ten, and ranks 10th nationally, by averaging 44.8 points. Purdue is second and 13th at 42.5.

What's going on?

“People have taken the spread offense and evolved it to a different level,” Boiler coach Danny Hope said. “There are a ton of plays and a ton of reads. I've made the statement before that in my next life, I sure do not want to come back as a defensive coach. It's just too hard with too many headaches.”

Kevin Wilson added to those headaches while directing one of college football's most explosive offenses as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator before taking over at Indiana.

“It's playmakers; it's quarterbacks; it's backs,” he says. “What some teams have done in the spread is different than 15 to 20 years ago. They've learned how to be in the spread and still have a running game; how to be in the spread and still be physical; how to be in the spread and throw at a very efficient level. You've got quarterbacks throwing for more touchdowns than incompletions in a game. You've got teams throwing the ball 50 times and not getting sacked.

“The old deal was if you throw the ball, three things can happen and two are bad. Now people are making you defend the whole field. As an offensive coach, I like it.”

Not every coach does. Alabama's Nick Saban wondered during this week's SEC teleconference if such high-scoring games, especially via the no-huddle attack, were good for college football, and even if it's dangerous to have a defense out there for 13 to 16 plays (Wilson's response — if the defense does its third-down job, long drives don't happen).

But then, Saban's ball-control offense and dominating defense have won two of the last three national championships. He's never been a light-up-the-scoreboard fan.

Otherwise, from Florida to Oregon, from Texas to West Virginia, offense rules. As Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush says, “It's a game of checking out the other side and learning. Experience helps with that. The offensive coaches are calling the right plays to get the ball in the end zone.”

It's not just coaches. Experienced quarterbacks audible depending on the defense they see, with big success.

“You've got a bunch of teams running the no-huddle and hurrying up the pace of the game,” TerBush says. “That's wearing down the defense. That puts it on the players to make good calls rather than the coaches. A lot of times defenses aren't able to call blitzes like they normally would because the offense is already up to the ball. That means you get a base defense and that's easier to exploit.”

As far as individual numbers from last Saturday, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith threw for 656 yards, the fifth most in NCAA history, along with eight touchdowns. His counterpart, Baylor's Nick Florence, threw for 581. Miami of Florida's Stephen Morris threw for 566 yards and five touchdowns. Fresno State's Derek Carr threw for 536 yards and five touchdowns. Miami of Ohio's Zac Dysert threw for 519 yards and six touchdowns. He also rushed for 109 yards. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel threw for 453 yards and three touchdowns, plus rushed for 104 yards. The 557 yards of total offense broke the SEC record of 540 held by Archie Manning and Rohan Davey.

Running backs also had big days. Air Force's Cody Getz rushed for 222 yards against Colorado State. Middle Tennessee's Benny Cunningham had 217 yards and five touchdowns in an upset win over Georgia Tech. Toledo's David Fluellen rushed for 213 yards on 21 carries in a win over Western Michigan. Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle had 199 yards and two TDs.

What does this tell you about the state of offense and defense in the 21st century?

For starters, speed rules.

Long gone are the clock-chewing ground attacks favor by Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. Spread offenses, up-tempo attacks (running plays every 15 seconds even though the play clock allows 40), quick passing (and more of it), running quarterbacks and no-huddle approaches are all the rage.

“With college offenses now they've got the spread, the tempo is little bit faster, it's a little bit more wide open attack,” Indiana co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory says. “It's more difficult to defend.”

The fast tempo forces defensive coaches to make their calls faster while ensuring the message gets through to everybody. Indiana struggled with that at times during last Saturday's 44-29 loss at Northwestern.

“Sometimes when you get in tempo situations you have to make a call that the kids have to all be on the same page,” Mallory says. “It has to be a relatively base call. At times in tempo situations we're running guys on and off, trying to match personnel.

“Looking back (at the Northwestern game), starting with myself, I could have simplified it more. An easier call would have 11 guys on the same page. At times we had a few breakdowns in communication.”

Up-tempo also means teams run more plays. Purdue had 90 against Marshall, one less than the Thundering Herd.

“The hyper-speed offenses are manufacturing a ton of plays,” Hope says. “We met our goal as far as average yard per rush against Marshall (it averaged 3.5 yards a run)) and average pass completion (it averaged 6.6 yards a completion), but they had a ton of points and a ton of yardage.

“People aren't used to seeing almost 100 plays a game. In the NFL, I don't believe the offense has more than 45 to 50 plays, so you're seeing twice as many at the college level.”

Many of those plays spread the field and put fast players in space, trying to create mismatches.

“That's what you look to exploit,” TerBush says. “You put quick guys on linebackers or tall guys on short guys. Then you try to get the ball in their hands and let them work.”

More and more that work includes quarterbacks such as Michigan's Denard Robinson, Northwestern's Kain Colter and Indiana's Tre Roberson (out for the season with a broken leg), who make as many plays with their running as their passing.

“One of the biggest differences now,” Mallory says, “and you're starting to see it in the NFL, you're already seeing it in the college ranks and in high school, is a quarterback who can be featured as a runner. In the old NFL, you never had to account for that guy as a runner. The only time that guy ran was in a scramble situation. Now he's an extra ball carrier. It becomes more difficult to defend.”

Adds Hope: The inordinate amount of plays and the style of offense and the spread offense evolving and the dual-threat quarterback being able to feature a passer and a runner, all those things together make up these unbelievable scores you're seeing.”

Will defenses ever catch up? In some cases, they already have. Top-ranked Alabama has the nation's stingiest defense, allowing 7.0 points. TCU is No. 2, allowing 7.25 points. Notre Dame is third at 9.0.

Michigan State, which plays Indiana on Saturday, leads the Big Ten and is 12th nationally by allowing 12.8 points.

Alabama uses a 3-4 defense that relies on zone blitzes, disguised coverages and great recruiting. Saban emphasizes defensive dominance and recruits for specific traits (although these aren't etched in stone). For instance, the Crimson Tide prefer cornerbacks who can judge the ball in the air, can play man-to-man coverage and who can tackle. Ideally they should be between 6-foot and 6-2, weigh more than 180 pounds and run a 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds.

Alabama also puts many of its best players on defense, an approach that's hard to ignore.

“You'd better get loaded up on defense or you will struggle to compete for any type of championship,” Hope says. “The best teams, the championship teams, are the ones that play great defense. We're hoping we can become a great defensive team. If that happens, we have a shot to be championship contenders.”

Purdue has work to do. It ranks ninth in the Big Ten, allowing 20.8 points, but counters that with an offense that has scored at least 48 points in three of its four games. The one exception — it had 17 in the Notre Dame loss.

“We have a lot of people who can make plays, and that's why we can score a bunch of points,” TerBush says. “We want to keep scoring to help our defense.”

What does all this offense do to officiating?

“I think there's tougher calls now,” Hope says. “The ball is in the air; it's all over the place. Defenders are close to receives. There are more opportunities for (pass interference) on either side.

“So the game is tougher to call, and at the same time, things are getting sped up. Things happen in a hurry, and that makes it more of a challenge for everyone involved — the offense, the defense, the officials, the coaches.”

Purdue's Short has a final thought.

“Just rely on the defensive line to make something happen,” he says.

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For more on college athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.


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