Defenses just trying to keep up
New Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Bill Young remembers the first time he coached the Cowboys, more than three decades ago as the team's offensive and defensive line coach.
In Young's first season on Jim Stanley's OSU staff in 1976, the Cowboys upset No. 5-ranked Oklahoma 31-24 in Norman, Okla., ending a nine-game losing streak in the Bedlam Series.
More than anything else, Young remembers how many times the two-time defending national champion Sooners passed the ball in the first half.
With Oklahoma running the wishbone offense coach Barry Switzer's teams made famous, Sooners quarterback Dean Blevins was intercepted on his only attempt in the first half and completed only one pass in the game.
"It's not like that anymore," said Young, who this season returns to Oklahoma State, his alma mater, after coaching the past three decades at several schools, including Miami in 2008.
"Everybody was running the wishbone and veer and it was smashmouth football. It's not three yards and a cloud of dust like it used to be."
Nowadays, it's often three-tenths of a second -- and duck! -- for defenses.
With spread formations and high-octane passing games changing the way college football is played like never before, defenses have never been under such intense pressure to perform. And it's never been more difficult for defenders to avoid game-changing plays, with offenses attacking them from all directions.
Defensive coordinators -- and their players -- need to have very thick skin and short memories.
"The only thing I've heard since I came back to Oklahoma State is that we can't play defense," Young said. "I tell people to look at Oklahoma and Texas, who have the best players in college football, and their statistics aren't much different than our stats."
Young inherits an OSU defense that ranked 93rd in the country in total defense last season, allowing 405.5 yards per game. Texas was the highest-ranked defense in the Big 12 (and 51st nationally) in 2008, allowing 342.9 yards per game. Oklahoma was third-best among Big 12 teams (and 68th nationally), yielding a 367.7-yard average.
Three decades ago, those kinds of defensive performances might have left teams in the cellar of the old Big Eight Conference. In today's college football, though, they're good enough to keep teams in contention for BCS bowl games.
"I think it's more the spread offenses and the great quarterbacks," Young said. "Look at the quarterbacks in the Big 12. If you miss a tackle in the open field now, it could be an 80-yard gain, instead of an 8-yard gain like it used to be."
Two decades ago, most of the country's best teams were more apt to run the football and win games with their defenses and kicking games. In 1978, NCAA Division I-A teams ran the ball an average of 50.9 times for 192.6 yards per game. Teams threw the ball only 21.2 times per game for 138.9 yards.
Now, teams are throwing the football more and more. Last season, NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams ran the ball an average of 36.7 times and threw 31 times.
"You used to be able to win a ballgame with a 3-0 score," said former Portland State offensive coordinator Darrel "Mouse" Davis, who is credited with revolutionizing the run-and-shoot offense in college football. "If you have a 3-0 game now, it's just two really bad teams."
Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said it's difficult to prepare a defense because teams run such varied offenses. Offenses are running the same plays in practice every week; defenses often have to prepare for an entirely new scheme each week.
"The hardest thing for a defensive coordinator in today's college football is that these offenses are running the same offense every week," Muschamp said. "They might tweak it a little from week to week based on the opponent they're playing, but the concepts are going to stay the same. They're practicing the same plays every week, and you're trying to prepare for a new offense in three or four days. You've got to adjust your scheme every week, based on whether it's a two-back, one-back or empty backfield. There is something new for your kids to learn every week."
Alabama coach Nick Saban, a longtime defensive coordinator, said it's difficult to mirror in practice what your defense will see on Saturdays.
"It's just like in the old days when they used to run the wishbone," Saban said. "When you had to play against the wishbone, that was really different. It was difficult to get the picture and look of what you needed to do to get your team prepared to be able to play against it. If you only had to defend that all the time, I think we could all get a little better at it. It's the [variety] of the different things you see throughout the season that make it more difficult."
Tom Bradley has been a member of Penn State's coaching staff the past 30 seasons, including the past decade as defensive coordinator. Over more than three decades, Bradley figures he has seen every formation a team could throw at his defense -- until now.
"It's different," Bradley said. "Back in the 1970s, the flanker fly -- when they'd run the flanker across the field -- was a big deal. Now you've got stuff from everywhere. The game on the perimeter is so much different."
With offenses lighting up scoreboards from coast to coast, keeping a defense confident over the course of a season can be difficult for coaches. Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose Bulldogs open the season at Oklahoma State on Sept. 5, said it's important to keep a team's defensive performance in perspective.
"[Oklahoma State] averages over 500 yards per game," Richt said. "This team averages over 40 points per game. If, by the grace of God, we're able to hold them to 21 points or 24 points and 350 yards to 450 yards, we've probably done a great job. But if that's what your defense does the first week of the season, you're probably going to be ranked last in the league in defense."
Keeping a defense confident for 12 games is even more difficult. This season, Oklahoma State will play six of the top 20 scoring offenses in the country from 2008. Seven of OSU's 11 FBS opponents -- Georgia, Houston, Rice, Missouri, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma -- averaged more than 30 points per game last season.
"We're playing these prolific offenses," Young said. "It's about who you play. If you line up and play the Sisters of the Poor, your stats are going to be a lot better."
The bottom line, Bradley said, is still winning games, just as it was when he joined Joe Paterno's staff in 1979.
"The only stat we care about is winning," Bradley said. "We don't go into a game saying, 'We have to do this.' We just worry about winning and what it takes to win games. If you're going to play good defense, you have to keep them out of the end zone, get some turnovers and win the game."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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