- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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The notion that defense wins championships is as old as Joe Paterno's white socks. It has been handed down from coaching generation to coaching generation. Knute Rockne rallied his players behind it. Bear Bryant mumbled it. Bud Wilkinson preached it.
And now football has passed it by.
How many coaches have you heard say, "If they can't score, they can't win." The problem is, in the 21st century, they can score. Defense wins championships? Look again. USC scored 55 points to humiliate Oklahoma and win the 2004 national championship. The Trojans and Texas combined to score 79 points and gain 1,130 yards of total offense in the Rose Bowl last January.
A championship? Defense can't guarantee even a winning season. Ask Tennessee. The Volunteers last season finished seventh in Division I-A in total defense, allowing 298.2 yards per game. They finished second in I-A in rushing defense, giving up only 82.5 yards per game. And those stats went unsullied by a bowl game, because Tennessee finished 5-6.
Texas and USC, on the other hand, finished in the top three in total offense.
"If you look at the play of the game for the national championship, it was still a fourth-and-two. It still comes down to that."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel
Most coaches would sooner you take away the rollover clause in their contract than back away from the verities of the game that they learned decades ago. Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron, the assistant head coach on that 2004 USC national champion, when asked if defense still wins championships, said, "No doubt."
"Look," Orgeron commanded. "Look at what happened. Look at the game. The best offense ever," Orgeron said, referring to Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush & Co., "couldn't win it."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who has won national championships at the I-A and I-AA level by emphasizing defense and special teams, echoed Orgeron.
"If you look at the play of the game for the national championship, it was still a fourth-and-two," Tressel said, referring to when the Longhorns stuffed the Trojans' LenDale White at the Texas 45 with 2:09 to play and USC leading, 38-33. "It still comes down to that."
Yes, but isn't that the equivalent of praising the pitching in a 15-13 Yankees' victory because Mariano Rivera got the last out?
The advent of the passing game in general and the spread offense in particular has changed the eternal equation of the game. If offense hasn't shoved defense off its throne, it has forced it to move over and share. Defense, by itself, is no longer enough.
Statistics back up the theory that offenses are moving the line of scrimmage farther forward than ever before. The average amount of total offense per game, points per game, and yards per play for all I-A teams has reached a level in each of the last five seasons that it had never reached prior to 2001.
But before we all whip out our calculators and compare football cosines, let's ask the man who might be the most responsible for the shift to offense. A decade ago, Rich Rodriguez was the head coach at the football backwater of Glenville State, an NAIA school in West Virginia. Now he's fresh off an 11-1 season at West Virginia University and has the Mountaineers ranked seventh in the USA Today preseason poll.
Rodriguez has combined the spread passing game with a running quarterback, and no one has caught up to him yet.
"People just say you win with defense," Rodriguez said. "You win with all phases. What [should] offensive guys say? 'Let the quarterback sneak 70 times and punt the ball?' You can't win a national championship without the spread. All four teams that won BCS games last year [Texas, West Virginia, Penn State and Ohio State] ran a spread."
All four offenses featured quarterbacks as dangerous with their feet as with their arms. That's the new school. The old-school thinking popped up just last week. Former Auburn coach Pat Dye, who will be enshrined this weekend in the College Football Hall of Fame, said, "The team that wins the SEC is the best defensive team with a quarterback that won't get their ass beat." In other words, an offense's first responsibility is, well, to be defensive. Don't make a mistake.
Rodriguez sounds a different note. "It really takes all three phases," he said. "If you're really bad on special teams, if you can't get a first down, you can't win."
Rodriguez got a second from Bill Callahan, who is at midstream in taking Nebraska from the power ground game that Tom Osborne and Frank Solich used for three decades to the West Coast offense.
"You gotta score points nowadays," said Callahan, beginning his third season in Lincoln. "You gotta be able to throw the football, especially in this [Big 12 Conference], because people can get up on you so quick, so fast. Texas Tech last year jumped out to a 21-0 lead against us (Nebraska rebounded to lead in the fourth quarter before losing, 34-31.). Everybody is talking about, 'Run the football.' When you're 21 points down, it's tough to run the football and keep the [offensive] balance and try to get where you want to go.
"You've got to score points," Callahan repeated. "It used to be defense wins championships. I think it all starts there. I still believe it starts with stopping the run game. But, you've got to be able to defend the pass. You've got to be able to throw the ball. You've got to be able to score points. Look at what Ohio State did to Notre Dame. Six-hundred-something (617) yards of total offense? Are you kidding? That's a lot of movement. That's a lot of yards."
"It really takes all three phases. If you're really bad on special teams, if you can't get a first down, you can't win."
West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez
Ohio State punted only once in that 34-20 Fiesta Bowl victory. Tressel acknowledged that there has been a shift in the winning paradigm.
"I don't know if you can say a pendulum has swung," Tressel said. "I do say this: Kids throw and catch more growing up. High schools do have video systems. They learn the game more. It's a little bit advanced. But on the other hand, [in] the NFL, which is supposedly the finest people playing that game, defense still wins championships. I don't know that the game has changed any."
Tressel, old-school soul that he is, couldn't bring himself to say it. One of his disciples, Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio, did say it. Playing sound defensive football is no longer enough.
Dantonio, the defensive coordinator on the 2002 national championship team at Ohio State, said the key to fighting the spread offense is to gamble with blitzes that attempt to pressure the offense while hiding the part of the field the blitz leaves vulnerable. If they work, great. If not, a good quarterback will pick at that vulnerability.
Dantonio said he has increased teaching and practice devoted to tackling in the open field.
"Tackling in space is much like being a hitter in baseball," Dantonio said. "If you're hitting .400 in space, you're doing pretty good. We're always going to play our 11 best tacklers. You're not going to be perfect in space. You can't lose any confidence if you miss."
Until defenses find a way to harness the spread, making less than half the tackles attempted might be the most anyone can hope for. That's what happens when the king of football must share its throne.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Defense wins championships is a staple of the coaching lexicon, but has the advent of the passing game changed the eternal premise of the game? Ivan Maisel explores.