Offense Gets Attention, Defense May Be the Key In Big 12
FRISCO, Texas — Offensive play is the watchword in the Big 12. Part reality, but additionally fueled by perception narratives that are as impossible to stamp out as a western U.S. wildfire, the league is characterized as uncaring and inattentive on the defensive side of the ball.
There’s nothing further from the truth, of course, no matter what the Twitterverse says. And for Big 12 coaches, there are a few keys they build around to help slow, if not stop, some of the rampaging attacks in the conference. This year, that could include West Virginia, which is more loaded on offense than a pizza with the works, but they’ll be just one of the teams upholding the league’s reputation as the center of offensive football in the nation.
In such a league, a plan to simply try to outscore the opposition is one that will eventually break down. Even Oklahoma, which ran up and down the field in 2017, couldn’t ride that formula to perfection, as it lost games to Iowa State and Georgia despite scoring a combined 79 points in the two contests. So while being able to top 30 or 40 points with regularity is important, that might only allow a team to keep pace with its opponent. Getting a few stops could be the difference.
“I think today you have to have the ability to win situational football,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said. “Get off the field on third and fourth down, and win in the goal line and red zone areas. Don’t give up big plays.”
Those are tenets that Campbell followed as he rebuilt Iowa State from league also-ran to a bowl participant, and now one that is challenging for a higher level of success in the conference. It’s basic, perhaps, but those are the types of plans that often have the best chance of working.
“I think playing 11 as 1 and running to the football, that is really big in this conference,’ said Campbell, using one of his catch phrases to describe the process of everyone on the field performing their job to get results, and doing so together. “Having the ability to be disciplined enough to play 11 as 1 is absolutely critical to success in defensive football. I think we have put a scheme together that matched our talent, and then had the ability to play to those principles.”
Iowa State obviously isn’t out-recruiting some of the offensive juggernauts in the league, and neither is West Virginia or most anyone else — at least in the eyes and evaluations of those who style themselves as recruiting experts. Coaches are beginning to push back on those takes, though, as they believe they are getting players, especially on the defensive side, that are good enough to slow down offenses and win with.
“That rating is your rating. That’s not my rating,” TCU head coach Gary Patterson said in response to a question that characterized his recruits as ‘not a lot of five stars or four stars’. “If I’m bringing them in I think they’re a pretty good player so they may be a four-star or five-star; obviously we’re getting more of those guys.”
As for any secrets or keys to his preparation on defense, which has obviously been quite successful, Patterson notes that it’s effort as much as anything else that forms the foundation of TCU’s performance. He noted that good defensive play has been a tradition on the Frog campus that predates his arrival, and it’s one that he has built on, but that to continue it he requires the buy-in of everyone.
“You can’t have a B effort or you are going to get in a lot of trouble,” he said simply.
On the other side of the coin is Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, whose defense was in tatters as recently as a couple of years ago. However, by staying the course — remember those basics — he has been able to lay the groundwork for much better play. The Red Raiders have three selections on the Big 12 preseason all-league team, and that’s something no one would have predicted when Tech was at the bottom of the conference defensive statistics and trying to win those shootouts.
“First and foremost, it’s continuity on defense and at coordinator,” he said of Tech’s turnaround and fourth-year defensive boss David Gibbs. “That’s something we haven’t had in a number of years at Texas Tech. To be able to develop a culture and identity you have to have the same guy in place so you don’t have new ideas thrown in every year. Coach Gibbs is very consistent as a coach and has never wavered, and that’s paying off dividends. He had a vision, knew what he wanted to do but had to go through two tough years. To his credit, he stuck to his guns, with his philosophy and his recruiting and now we’re making strides on that side of the football.”
In terms of personnel, teams that have the ability to pressure opposing passers, or at least not get worn to a frazzle to the point where their play deteriorates, also have a chance to thrive. TCU has been good in that regard, and Kingsbury underscores that importance.
“It starts up front. As many snaps as you have in the Big 12, you have to have eight or ten guys you can rotate through and play at a high level. I think that’s where we’ve made the biggest strides,” he explained.
There’s also the versatility angle, which Campbell, who has begun to recruit to his revamped defensive system, embraces.
“Recruiting players that have multiplicity, that’s really big. It’s something we are working on,” said Campbell, who has taken the Cyclones from 3-9 to 8-5 in two seasons at the helm. “Guys that can play multiple positions and do multiple things for us [are important].
So with a mix of fundamental approaches, identifying players that fit the system and getting ones who can man multiple positions and perform different duties by buying into the team concept, a successful defense in the Big 12 can be built. These won’t be ones that smother opposing offenses, but ones that can win some head-to-head match-ups, make a few big plays of their own and give their offenses a bit of breathing room as they attempt to match opponents score for score. Sound like a scenario that could play out for the squad picked to have the best offense in the league this year?