Texas linebacker Joseph Ossai tackles West Virginia running back Alec Sinkfield in the first quarter at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday November 7, 2020. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Big 12 defenses are out to shatter the league’s old offense-first stereotype

Posted November 9th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • What in the name of Pat Mahomes is going on in the land of spread offenses and scores in the 60s? Defense, that’s what. You know, I know it, Mike Gundy knows it, Gary Patterson’s always known it, OK Kansas’ Les Miles doesn’t know it.
  • OK, so maybe it’s a bit of recent-history anecdotal, but low scores don’t seem to be a total mirage in the League of Forgotten Defense. Heck, only three quarterbacks in the Big 12 rank in the top 50 national passing stats.
  • “It’s a different approach to defense, but there really is good defense here,” Baylor's Dave Aranda said. “They make you work, especially up front. There’s a lot more variety up front than the last two leagues I’ve been in."

If you didn’t already realize that 2020 has broken all the records for bizarre, whether it’s television shows about crazed tiger trainers or rappers running (briefly) for president or Elon Musk naming his son after, what, the alphabet, this latest trend all but cements that notion.

Welcome to the Big 12, where great defenses come to play.

Wait, what?

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What in the name of Pat Mahomes is going on in the land of spread offenses and scores in the 60s?

Defense, that’s what.

You know it, I know it, Mike Gundy knows it, Gary Patterson’s always known it, OK, Kansas’ Les Miles doesn’t know it.

Texas wide receiver Jordan Whittington (4) is forced out of bounds by Oklahoma defensive back Tre Brown (6) and linebacker Brian Asamoah (24) during the first quarter at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Oklahoma won in quadruple overtime, 53-45. (Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

It might be a stretch to say the Big 12 has come 180 degrees or has at least changed its stripes entirely, but it’s also safe to say the league is showcasing strong defensive play like rarely before.

The evidence is mounting.

Texas beats West Virginia 17-13.

Oklahoma State holds off Kansas State 20-18.

It’s enough to give Lincoln Riley the shivers. Well, maybe not, since his Sooners are running roughshod over opponents, averaging 52.5 points in their last four victories. But OU also is one of three Big 12 defenses ranked in the top 26 nationally.

OK, so maybe it’s a bit of recent-history anecdotal, but low scores don’t seem to be a total mirage in the League of Forgotten Defense. Heck, only three quarterbacks in the Big 12 rank in the top 50 national passing stats. Eight teams are giving up points in the 20s on average, not 40s.

Texas defensive coordinator Chris Ash oversees a practice earlier this year. (Texas Athletics photo)

If not dominant, defense has at least raised some eyebrows.

Here are a few of the reasons.

Defenses have caught up to offenses. It was inevitable. Shoot, Alabama’s adopted the spread attack as much as anybody, and Nick Saban used to condemn the Air Raid as the biggest threat to this country since TikTok.

Defenses mix up their coverages. Whether it’s dropping eight into coverage like Iowa State or posing hard-to-decipher blitzes, hats off to the defensive coordinators in the league like Iowa State’s Jon Heacock, Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles, Texas’ Chris Ash and West Virginia’s mix of Jordan Lesley, Jahmile Addae and Co.

“Coach (Gary) Patterson and Kansas State have always kind of beaten you with fundamentals and technique and physicality,” Texas’ Tom Herman said Monday. “Other schools have been unique. What Iowa State unveiled three years ago revolutionized defense around the country. Others have gone to that. And there’s very little carryover from week to week. I’ve always thought the Big 12 got an unfair rap for the sheer propensity of the offenses.”

Helping defenses is the fact many of the Big 12’s offenses are run by young or new quarterbacks although that hasn’t necessarily held back OU redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler at all. He’s averaging 288 yards a game with 18 touchdowns and only six picks.

But in fairness, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Kansas and Oklahoma State have all broken in freshman quarterbacks at times, and the Wildcats and Tigers still start rookies.

There are other factors like experienced, senior-led defenses at Oklahoma State and West Virginia. And better schemes with more twists and stunts and disguised defenses.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) gets wrapped up by Baylor linebacker Terrel Bernard (26) in the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Waco, Texas. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Baylor’s Dave Aranda has detected those tactics “and more exotic looks, possibly more of a roll the dice whether it’s a run or pass” in his new league. As last year’s defensive coordinator at national champion LSU in the heretofore defensive-minded SEC, he gives Big 12 defenses a ringing endorsement.

“It’s a different approach to defense, but there really is good defense here,” Aranda said. “They make you work, especially up front. There’s a lot more variety up front than the last two leagues I’ve been in.

Aranda even likened the philosophy to “Hoosiers” and its star player Jimmy Chitwood: “It’s more everybody touches the ball (in the Big 12.”

There are plenty of Chitwoods in the league on the defensive side of the ball.

The league boasts star defensive talent like Oklahoma State’s Malcolm Rodriguez, Tre Sterling and Kolby Harvey-Peel, Texas defensive end Joseph Ossai, West Virginia’s Darius and Dante Stills up front and Tony Fields II at linebacker, OU’s Ronnie Perkins in the line, and until he had a season-ending shoulder surgery this week, Baylor’s Terrel Bernard, who may have been the conference’s defensive player of the year.

Coaches, of course, have always maintained the Big 12 brand of defense is no worse than any other leagues, and its image suffered only because of prolific offense. But Iowa State held Mahomes to 10 points in a game in 2016.

“It’s a cycle,” Gundy said. “It goes this way in football. Offenses get way ahead with schemes, RPOs, playing fast and attacking downfield vertically, great quarterbacks. But defenses have rallied and come up with answers. And remember a majority of the quarterbacks are young except for Texas.”

One advantage of this improved defensive play could mean friendlier receptions in the living rooms of recruits.

Maybe there’s little empirical evidence to reflect that, but you know other leagues uses the Big 12’s label of poor defense against it with high-profile recruits.

If the Big 12 can dispel that perception, it would help spruce up its image for future recruits and CFP conversations.

Maybe the old stereotype will be shattered.

“I don’t know if we’re here to say it’s broken,” Texas Tech’s Matt Wells said. “There’s certainly lower-scoring games than everyone is used to. There are good defensive coaches in this league, too.”

Preach it.

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