College defenses struggling to keep up

By Pat Zier
Ledger correspondent
Patrick Zier

The formula was pretty simple, and for many years, it was also pretty effective.

If you wanted to win football games, you ran the ball, controlled the clock and played great defense. The spread offense was around, but it hadn't been perfected to the level it's at now.

Over the past 10 years or so, the spread and up-tempo offenses have come to dominate the game. Now, you throw the ball all over the field, score as many points as you can as fast as you can and defense be damned.

There are still a few dinosaurs around. Wisconsin is the prototypical example of an old school offense, but not many. Even Wisconsin, one of the last holdouts, may be starting to change.

Asked once why the Badgers didn't go along with the crowd, former coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez pretty much summed it up with one word: weather. Wisconsin, he said, had difficulty recruiting elite skill position players because they didn't want to play in the snow and cold. And, the Badgers' offense was an advantage late in the season when it could be 30 degrees with blowing snow. Wisconsin's 300-pound linemen and 225-pound running backs could still grind out yards.

But the Badgers are offensive outcasts in today's game, although they continue to win at a very high level. They are the exception to the rule.

Up-tempo offenses and the spread are dominant, and for good reason. They are almost unstoppable. With four or five receivers shooting downfield every play, creating mismatches in the secondary, and offensive linemen often split yards apart, forcing defenders to line up farther away from the quarterback, scoreboards are lighting up like a berserk pinball machine.

Alabama is considered the gold standard for college football. The Tide won the national championship 10 years ago with a 12-1 record. Only one team it played, Georgia Southern — yes, that's right, Georgia Southern, not Georgia — scored more than 14 points against the Tide. It's only loss was to LSU, 9-6.

"Those days are gone," South Florida Coach Jeff Scott commented. "You're not going to see 14-7 games anymore."

Scott's right. Alabama also won the national championship last year, going 13-0, and the Tide defense gave up more than 14 points in eight of those wins. In just two games, against Mississippi and Florida, Alabama gave up 94 points. That compares with 106 allowed during the entire 2011 season.

A good example of how today's game is played is last year's shootout between USF and Central Florida. UCF won, 58-46. The two teams combined for 1,223 yards of offense. There were 16 scoring drives, 10 of which took 2:30 or less to complete, which leaves defensive linemen, in particular, with their tongues hanging out. For the season, UCF ranked eighth in the country scoring an average of 42.2 points per game. It also ranked 92nd in scoring defense, allowing 33.2 points per contest.

With that kind of pace, defenses get no rest and unless you have great depth, particularly up front, you can't pressure the quarterback, which allows strong-armed passers to cut you to ribbons.

"Defensive line is an issue," Scott commented. "It's the hardest position to get; always a struggle. I'd say there are only five or six teams — Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Notre Dame — that are satisfied with their defensive line."

So, we have gone from ball control to out of control in just a few short years. You can't stop anybody anymore, you just have to hope you can slow them down. Or that your quarterback has a bigger gun than their guy.