Pac-12 teams getting defensive

August, 22, 2012
8/22/12
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T.J. McDonald, Star Lotulelei, Shayne SkovUS PresswireThe Pac-12 boasts some of the best defensive talent in the country: USC safety T.J. McDonald, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov.
In the depths of their offices, some of the best offensive minds in college football are grinding.

Chip Kelly is pondering how to get 10 more plays per game out of his offense.

Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach are re-re-revolutionizing their attacks.

David Shaw is trying to figure out how to get nine offensive linemen, five tight ends and three fullbacks on the field at once.

Lane Kiffin has more offensive toys than an FAO Schwarz display.

"Option, option spread, I, heavy-I, pistol, triple-backs, full house, triple tights; it's something new every week," said Oregon linebacker Michael Clay. "It makes every week pretty interesting."

The Pac-12 is widely regarded as the conference of offenses. And they are only getting better. Prior to 1990, only twice has a team led the conference with a scoring average of more than 40 points. Since 1990, it's happened nine times -- including USC's conference best of 49.1 points per game in 2005.

That means being a defensive player in the Pac-12 is awfully difficult.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillKyle Whittingham says his defense must be able to adapt to the different offenses in the Pac-12.
"You get Andrew Luck one week and then Matt Barkley the next," said USC safety T.J. McDonald. "The preparation is on a whole other level compared to other conferences. There are great quarterbacks and great receivers and running backs. But the culture of this conference has changed. They've forced defenses to get better."

As the spread offense became chic and more teams were stretching defenses, they were forced to respond in kind. Gone are the days of everyone lining up in a base 4-3 and slugging it out. Now defenses are evolving into multiple fronts, exotic and disguised coverages and zone blitzes.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham should know. He and UCLA coach Jim Mora are the only head coaches in the conference with a defensive background.

"We're definitely the minority," Whittingham said with a laugh. "It's a broad spectrum. Defensively, in this day and age, you have to be able to defend it all anyways. When the spread became en vogue 10-12 years ago it caught on like wildfire. Now almost everyone has a version of it. You have to be equipped to deal with whatever you come across week in and week out and have a scheme that is flexible enough and adaptable enough that you can cover all of your bases.

"Things go in cycles. The spread becomes en vogue and takes a while for the defense to catch up. Then the zone blitz was giving offenses fits and the offenses had to catch up to that. I think everything in football is cyclical and if offense has the upper hand right now, it won't be too further down the road where that role is reversed."

And that time might be coming sooner than later. Utah, California, USC, Oregon and Stanford all have defenses that are very good and bordering on elite. But the numbers don't always add up because in this conference, you are going to give up yards and you are going to give up points.

"Part of it is innovation," Shaw said. "Part of it is Chip Kelly and Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez. The thing is, you can use the word 'spread' offense for half the teams in our conference, but they are all different. You can say 'pro-style' offense, which is what you would say about us and USC, but they are so different. The hard part of playing defense in our conference is every single week, you are playing against something you didn't see the week before.

"Cal has a pro-style offense. But their passing is different than our pass game and their running is different than our running game. And theirs is different from USC's. You are going to play a nine-game conference schedule and every single offense you play is going to be completely different. Defensive coordinators -- and we've got a really good group in this conference -- defensive coordinators and players have to flush a lot of what you watched the week before and study film hard the next week because you're going to see a different animal."

The conference also has the players to back up the defensive hype. Stanford linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov are projected as two of the best at their positions. Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is regarded as the best defensive tackle in the nation and McDonald is a returning All-American.

And while perception might never really change nationally since the conference keeps chugging out A-list offensive players, Washington quarterback Keith Price says he's seen the difference.

"The difference between us and some of those other conferences is the defensive linemen," Price said. "We've always had good skill players. They say the trenches is what separates the SEC from the other conferences. But you can see now that our conference is starting to get there. When you look at teams like Cal and Utah, their defensive lines are really tough."

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