Big 12: Greg Dillon

Big 12 mailbag: Can OSU rebound after recent defensive struggles?

September, 25, 2009
9/25/09
5:00
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Steve Johnson from Oklahoma City writes: Tim, what has happened to the Oklahoma State defense? Everybody was talking about them like they were the second coming of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” after their effort against Georgia in the opener. And then, it’s like they’ve forgotten how to cover passes and make tackles. What do you make of this and do you think that the importance of Bill Young was overrated coming into the season?

Tim Griffin: I’ve been kind of wondering what happened to Oklahoma State’s pass defense the last two weeks, too. The Cowboys played so well in that first game that I expected some carryover.

Despite that strong debut, they then were blistered by Houston’s Case Keenum and Rice had some passing success against them too. Part of that was caused by Perrish Cox’s injury and the fact that safeties Johnny Thomas and Victor Johnson were out.

One of Young’s biggest aims was boosting Oklahoma State’s pass rush. The Cowboys produced two sacks against Georgia, but have only produced two sacks in the last two games combined.

A key for their pass defense will be getting an effective pass rush. That should improve as defensive end Richetti Jones gets healthy and defensive end Jeremiah Price returns to the lineup from his hand injury.

The Cowboys shouldn’t be tested by Grambling quarterback Greg Dillon on Saturday. And then Oklahoma State has a week off before starting Big 12 play.

Getting the pass defense fixed will be Young’s first concern, considering the Cowboys’ early Big 12 schedule. They will face big challenges in their first top four games as they face Texas A&M (sixth in passing), Missouri (19th nationally), Baylor (with the multi-talented but struggling Robert Griffin) and Texas (13th nationally). Their performance in those four games will determine if all of the hype about the Cowboys coming into the season was deserved or not.

And no, I don’t think that importance of Young’s hiring for the Cowboys was overrated. I think we’ll see why over the next several weeks.

Tommy from Omaha, Neb., writes: Tim, there was a lot of controversy about the Big 12 Conference being overrated after the first couple of weeks of the season after Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Nebraska lost and Colorado couldn’t beat anybody. But with Florida's struggles against Tennessee, Mississippi's loss to unranked South Carolina, and Georgia's loss to Oklahoma St., doesn't that seemingly suggest that maybe the SEC is not exactly up to par either? Or do you think that college football is just getting more competitive? When you look around the country and see USC, Ohio State, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma losing games in the first few weeks of the season it would seem that it’s not just the Big 12 that is struggling. What do you make of it?

Tim Griffin: I agree with your point. Almost every conference has had several key losses during the non-conference part of their schedule. The SEC hasn’t shown in some nationally televised games. But that seems to be symptomatic in college football these days.

Other than Florida, Texas and Alabama, I haven’t seen many teams that have knocked my socks off. I might throw Miami and Houston in as other teams that have really impressed me. But I think that speaks to the parity of college football. More teams are capable of winning games and making the supposedly better team look bad.

Some might think that isn't good for the sport. But I just believe it will make for a more competitive season with a lot of interesting upsets throughout the year.

Corey from Liberty, Mo., writes:How are you going to sit there and say that Zac Lee isn’t hot? Blacksburg is a tough place to play and everybody else on the Cornhuskers played bad anyway. One game doesn’t define a player.

Tim Griffin:Corey, I was just making a statistical judgment from what Lee produced in that game. And the fact that he passed for 136 yards, which led to the lowest passing production for the Cornhuskers in 20 games, I thought qualified him as struggling.

Of course, he can turn things around and have a big game against Louisiana-Lafayette. That could get him just as easily on the hot list next week.

Ron Sestak from St. Louis, Mo., writes: Tim, quick couple of questions for you. Who have been your biggest surprise as a player so far this season and who has been your biggest disappointment?

Tim Griffin:It’s hard to narrow that to only player, so I’ll give you a couple. As far as the biggest surprise, I’ll pick Kansas defensive end Maxwell Onyegbule, who has morphed into the second coming of Julius Peppers despite never starting a game before this season. Another big surprise for me is Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who I thought would be productive but not nearly as much as he’s shown over the first three games. One of my biggest early disappointments start has been Robert Griffin of Baylor. He started with a victory over Wake Forest where his most notable play was a quick kick. And then he struggled through the worst game of his career last week against Connecticut. The Bears’ bowl hopes are toast unless he picks things up. And I’ll also add Darrell Scott of Colorado, who I thought was ready for a breakthrough season. I know he was injured last week. But he still has accounted for nearly four times as many kickoff return yards as he has rushing yards. That’s not a good sign for Dan Hawkins’ future job security.

Jack Sturgis from Lenexa, Kan., writes:Tim, I saw where you mentioned Brandon Banks’ early struggles this season for Kansas State. He hasn’t been the deep threat that me and all of the other Catbackers hoped he would be. Do you have any reason for this? Is he injured and we don’t know about it?

Tim Griffin: I, too, have been a little surprised with Banks’ slow start. I’ve only had a chance to watch a little bit of one of their games this season, but I know that it seemed like UCLA was paying a lot of attention to him in its pass defense.

Banks’ numbers of receptions are high, but his yard-per-catch average is down from 15.7 last season to 8.3 this season.

I think the biggest reason for his decline might be in the comparison of the quarterbacks throwing to him from last season to this season. Josh Freeman had a big arm and the Wildcats favored a more vertical passing game than this season with Carson Coffman throwing. That may be the major reason for his supposed struggles so far.

Let’s look at the numbers he produces tomorrow against Tennessee Tech. A big game might indicate that the first three games are just a statistical aberration. But if he struggles again against the Golden Eagles, it might be indicative of a bigger problem.

Thomas Knobloch from Dallas, Texas, writes: Tim, I’m not sure your effectiveness rankings are very meaningful. Your formula treats all possessions equally while that assumption couldn't be further from the truth. I do like the point you are trying to get to though. Maybe adding a starting field position component to the equation would help. For conference games, you could also add a component that accounted for quality of opponent. A scoring drive against ISU at home isn't as meaningful as a scoring drive against OU in Norman. This type of analysis seems relatively meaningless week-by-week due to the small sample size, but over the course of a season, it could prove valid.

Tim Griffin: Thomas, I appreciate your observations. But remember, I’m not trying to develop a cure for the common cold or world hunger here. I just wanted a simple, relatively meaningful gauge of offensive and defensive effectiveness. And my point is this: Isn’t an offense’s goal every time it takes the field to ultimately try and score points? And isn’t a defense’s goal to stop them from scoring? That’s what I feel this measurement gauges, even if you are playing USC or Slippery Rock. I think the figures will be more meaningful over the course of a season. And I also think we’ll be able to get a pretty good picture of effectiveness of Big 12 teams once we use just the figures from conference games, which I’m planning to do.

Thanks again for all of the good questions again this week. We’ll catch up again next Tuesday.

10 things to watch in the Big 12, Week 4

September, 24, 2009
9/24/09
7:41
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here are 10 things I'm looking forward to watching across the Big 12 this weekend:

1. Taylor Potts vs. Case Keenum in the weekend’s best aerial battle. Texas Tech travels to cozy Robertson Stadium on the campus of the University of Houston to meet up with the Cougars, who at No. 17, are ranked highest in the Associated Press poll since they were No. 10 on Sept. 12, 1991. Saturday’s game should be an aerial circus featuring two of the nation’s top-four passers. Their individual battle underscores the matchup between their two teams, who will be meeting for the first time since 1995 -- the last season of Southwest Conference play.

2. Blaine Gabbert’s first true road game: Missouri’s sophomore quarterback has his first start away from the state of Missouri as the Tigers travel to winless Nevada. Veteran Nevada coach Chris Ault will likely pack the box and force Gabbert to beat him with his arm. When the Tigers are balanced, Gabbert is extremely effective, leading the conference and ranking 11th nationally in passing efficiency. The Missouri defense ranks a pedestrian 86th nationally in pass defense and will be challenged by multi-talented Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

3. Kansas' stout run defense against Southern Mississippi’s Damion Fletcher: The improving Jayhawks defense will receive its biggest test of the preseason in the conference’s only battle of unbeaten teams. Kansas will be challenged by Southern Mississippi running back Damion Fletcher, who ranks 11th nationally in rushing (114.7 yards per game). The Jayhawks' defense ranks fourth nationally in sacks, sixth in scoring defense and eighth in rush defense, but will be facing its biggest challenge of the season so far.

4. Can Colt McCoy break his recent first-half slumps? Texas’ Heisman Trophy candidate has struggled through difficult first halves and has been victimized by four interceptions in his first three games after throwing only eight picks in 433 pass attempts last season. McCoy’s first halves so far this season have produced a pedestrian quarterback rating of 122.57, compared to 177.64 in the second half. He’ll be challenged by UTEP’s defense, which ranks 92nd in total defense. The game seems like a perfect salve for McCoy’s recent struggles.

5. Battle of the running attacks as Iowa State faces Army's option attack: The most consistent part of Iowa State’s offense has been its running game, which is averaging a potent 209 yards per game. Underrated Alexander Robinson has been the key with an average of 108.7 yards per game to rank second in the conference behind Roy Helu Jr. The Cyclones’ power will be countered by Army's traditional running attack, which ranks seventh nationally in rushing and features four backs who average at least 44 yards per game.

6. A Nebraska celebration of football: The Cornhuskers’ disappointing loss at Virginia Tech last week will be forgotten as the team returns for a big weekend to celebrate the school’s fanatical support. Saturday’s game will be the 300th consecutive home sellout in a remarkable streak that dates back to 1962. The Cornhuskers will be wearing some cool throwback uniforms and will be looking to win against Louisiana-Lafayette -- a team that has already notched one upset over a Big 12 team this season after beating Kansas State two weeks ago.

7. What will Uzoma Nwachukwu do for an encore? Texas A&M’s scintillating freshman wide receiver had a remarkable game last week against Utah State, touching the ball four times and scoring four touchdowns to set a school freshman one-game scoring record. With top receiver Jeff Fuller out up to six weeks with a cracked fibula, Nwachukwu will need to become a bigger part of the offense. The Aggies’ chances should be bolstered against 1-2 UAB, which has lost its last two games in a row and is allowing 333.7 passing yards a game to rank 118th nationally. Jerrod Johnson has to be excited about playing that leaky pass defense.

8. Can Brandon Banks return to Kansas State’s offense? The Wildcats have had trouble getting Banks open for the big gains that marked him last season as a junior. Banks ranks among the nation’s top 50 receivers with an average of 5.3 grabs per game. But his yard-per-catch average has dropped significantly from 15.7 last season to 8.3 this season. And he could be facing a bigger challenge than expected from FCS challenger Tennessee Tech, which is allowing only 128 yards passing per game. It's important to get Banks back and producing to balance Kansas State's offense.

9. Robert Griffin’s chance at redemption: The Baylor quarterback struggled through the worst game of his career last week, producing just 139 yards of total offense in the Bears' loss to Connecticut. If the Bears have any legitimate hopes of rebounding for a bowl trip, they need to get the production of their playmaker back. They start their comeback Saturday against Northwestern State, which has been singed in three straight losses to Houston, Grambling and North Dakota. It will also represent the return of Quentin Castille against Big 12 opponents. Castille, formerly of Nebraska, is Northwestern State’s second-leading rusher at 51.3 yards per game.

10. What Bill Young will do with Oklahoma State's struggling defense: After a strong effort in a season-opening victory over Georgia, Oklahoma State’s pass defense has disappeared in its last two games. The Cowboys have allowed their last two foes to complete an average of 30 passes for 333.5 yards per game. The slump has dropped Oklahoma State to 90th in total defense and 108th in pass defense. Grambling isn’t known for its passing attack as quarterback Greg Dillon has thrown for an average of 101.5 yards per game. But wily Oklahoma State coordinator Bill Young still needs to get the Cowboys back and productive for the beginning of conference play in two weeks.

Big 12 spectators' guide, Week 4

September, 23, 2009
9/23/09
9:51
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here’s a spectator’s guide for this weekend’s games. A ranking of four stars indicates must-see football. Three-star games are definitely worth an extensive investment in time. Two-star games bear a quick glimpse or two for occasional score updates, but little more. And one-star games mean you might be better off watching your kids’ soccer games or taking care of some yardwork than hunkering down in front of the television.

Check out this list and plan your Saturday schedules accordingly. All times are for Saturday games unless otherwise noted.

Four-star games

Texas Tech at Houston (ESPN2, 9:15 p.m. ET): Stay up late for this offensive battle between underrated Case Keenum of Houston and Texas Tech’s Taylor Potts, who showed much moxie last week in his national coming-out party against Texas. The Cougars lead the nation in scoring and rank fourth in passing. Texas Tech leads the nation in passing.

Three-star games

Southern Mississippi at Kansas (noon): The streaking Jayhawks will be tested against Southern Mississippi, whose eight-game winning streak is tied with Mississippi behind only Florida’s 13-game streak. The Golden Eagles bring a lot of firepower with Damion Fletcher (11th nationally in rushing) and 6-foot-6 wide receiver DeAndre Brown, who Kansas coach Mark Mangino says will be the toughest receiver his team will face this season. Kansas will hope to continue building with a balanced offense that is the only team nationally to rank among the top 16 in rushing, scoring, passing offense and total offense.

Missouri at Nevada (ESPN, 9 p.m. Friday): The Tigers will face their first road challenge of the season against the 0-2 Wolf Pack, who have been an early disappointment after losing at Notre Dame and Colorado State. Sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert leads the Big 12 in passing efficiency, but will be challenged to match multitalented Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Nevada will try to dictate tempo with Vai Taua, who is tied for 21st nationally in rushing.

Two-star games

UTEP at Texas (3:30 p.m.): Emerging Longhorns should receive a break this week against the Miners, who lost twice at home before winning last week at New Mexico State. Texas should dictate the game against a UTEP offense that ranks 97th or worst in scoring offense, total offense and rushing and tied for 101st in sacks allowed. The Longhorns have won all three previous games in the series by a combined 92-13 margin.

Army at Iowa State (7 p.m.): Iowa State’s confidence will be tested by Army’s option-based ground attack which ranks seventh nationally with an average of 257.7 rushing yards per game. Iowa State will counter with Alexander Robinson, who ranks 15th nationally and has rushed for back-to-back 100-yard games. One item to watch will be Iowa State’s short defensive backs against 6-foot-10, 285-pound Army wide receiver Ali Villanueva, who is tied for his team's lead in receiving.

Louisiana-Lafayette at Nebraska (7 p.m.): This will be a celebration of all things Nebraska football as the Cornhuskers’ program celebrates its 300th consecutive sellout in a streak that dates to 1962. The Cornhuskers will wear throwback uniforms as they hope to rebound from last week’s disappointing loss at Virginia Tech. The Ragin’ Cajuns will be gunning for their second victory over a Big 12 school in three weeks with an offense that has not allowed a sack this season.

UAB at Texas A&M (7 p.m.): The Aggies should have another breather after easy victories over New Mexico and Utah State. Aggie linebacker Von Miller leads the nation in sacks and Jerrod Johnson is third in total offense. The Aggies shouldn’t be challenged by a Blazers team that has lost two straight and ranks 110th in total defense and 118th in pass defense.

One-star games

Tennessee Tech at Kansas State (1 p.m.): Kansas State hopes to stem a two-game losing streak against the Golden Eagles, coached by Watson Brown, older brother of Texas coach Mack Brown. Tennessee Tech created three turnovers and blocked a kick last week against Eastern Kentucky. But they’ll be challenged by the Wildcats, who will be facing their second FCS challenge after beating Massachusetts in the opener. Kansas State ranks among the bottom five teams nationally in sacks (118th) and tackles for losses (116th).

Northwestern State at Baylor (7 p.m.): Coach Art Briles’ team was shaken after the upset home loss against Connecticut last week. Robert Griffin is coming off his worst college game after producing a career-low 139 total yards against Connecticut. Northwestern State has lost its first three games, including a home loss to North Dakota last week. The Demons have struggled defensively, allowing 40 points per game. And Quentin Castille, formerly of Nebraska, is averaging 51.3 yards rushing per game.

Grambling State at Oklahoma State (7 p.m.): Oklahoma State hopes for more continuity in its final nonconference game. Their struggling pass defense (108th nationally) will be challenged by Grambling State quarterback Greg Dillon. Grambling has won two straight games but will be facing its only FBS challenge of the season in this game.

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