Heartbeat of the Heartland: Offense-Happy Big 12 Football

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Perhaps no game better displayed and explained Big 12 football than last year’s Oklahoma-Texas Tech game. Each team finished with 854 yards, setting an FBS record for combined yards gained.

While the Sooners won (survived), 66-59, but their defense – for so long a trademark and a reason for the program’s success – lost much respect. While Red Raiders quarterback Patrick Mahomes went on to become a first-round pick in the NFL Draft, OU’s inability to stop the Texas Tech offense – and Tech’s similar issues with the Oklahoma offense – turned the game into a punch line for shoddy defense and gaudy offense.

The Big 12 embracing spread/air raid offensive philosophies over the last decade has made many a defensive coordinator old before his time. Stretching the field horizontally and vertically with 4.3 wide receivers, recruiting quarterbacks who have grown up as up-tempo throwers plus using scat backs who provide an explosive run option gave the impression that, in the Big 12, the offense had the upper hand.

And while there hasn’t been an outbreak of 14-7 games (other than in Ames, Iowa), it appears there has been a market correction in terms of defensive coordinators finding some antidotes.

What has become a mini-trend is this: More Big 12 defenses are morphing their 11-man deployments to stop big plays in the passing game while also preventing the offense from mounting a consistent run game. Putting more linebackers and defensive backs on the field and forcing the other team into dink and dunk mode is becoming the rage.

It can be summed up like this: Defenses can change their defensive alignments play to play and at times challenge pass-oriented teams to run the football. Offenses can’t counter by deciding to switch to the Wishbone.

“In this league, you have to have multiple defensive fronts and looks,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “If you try to line up the same away against these offenses, you’re going to give up a lot of points.”

Cyclones defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has been doing marvelous work along those lines. Over the last 16 quarters, Iowa State’s defense has allowed 20 points. And five Big 12 opponents have scored a total of 17 offensive points after halftime.

“I hope that’s one thing that we’re good at doing on both sides of the ball — making adjustments and having the ability to play better in the second half than we did in the first half,” Campbell told the Des Moines Register. “I think those things are really big.”

Saturday at Baylor, Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando extensively used a 3-2-6 alignment designed to limit the Bears’ passing attack. Baylor scored just seven points.

“I think what Todd does is he takes your strengths away,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “That was very evident. That’s the biggest thing is he’s going to stop your strength or make it extremely difficult for you and make you play left-handed.”

Oklahoma fans no doubt thought the Sooners’ defense was playing hands up – as in “we surrender” – in the first quarter of the rematch with Texas Tech. To stop the Red Raiders, OU defense coordinator Mike Stoops tried a defensive scheme that featured just two defensive linemen plus hybrid defensive end/linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Given the opportunity to run basically unabated, Texas Tech through one quarter was on pace to score 80 points and challenge last year’s total offense record.

After one quarter of the Red Raiders averaging 10 yards a play, Stoops went to a four-man front. Texas Tech scored seven the rest of the way.

“It helped us a lot in the passing game,” Okoronkwo told the Tulsa World. “It let us get more pressure. You’re going to get more pressure if you have more guys rushing the passer.”

While Big 12 offenses are still often playing chess while the defensive units are playing checkers, the adjustments being made can at times lead to a more balanced contest.

Go viral, coach; go viral

A week ago Your Veteran Scribe wrote about Iowa State being ranked and hosting perhaps the biggest game in school history with No. 4 TCU coming to Ames. As you are probably aware, the Cyclones did to the Frogs what they did to Oklahoma. Those two victories over top five teams over the last month has vaulted Iowa State to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll, the school’s highest ranking since 2002.

The field storming of Jack Trice Stadium after the 14-7 victory provided a fitting visual exclamation mark. Also, coach Matt Campbell was captured in the post-game locker room explaining and underlining how and why the Cyclones are winning.

There’s just something about an Iowa State coach, an upset and a post-game locker room. Campbell’s victory speech echoed the won given by his predecessor, Paul Rhoads, after the Cyclones had won at Nebraska in 2009.

Clear eyes, full hearts, trust the process.

Baylor injury list growing

Anu Solomon, who was a starter at quarterback for Arizona as a freshman, graduate transferred to Baylor and was the starter in the Bears’ opener. Coach Matt Rhule announced Tuesday that Solomon has withdrawn from school. Solomon suffered a concussion in Baylor’s second game and withdrew because the concussion issues were preventing him from attending class.

That’s a sobering development for a program that has is reeling from a hard-to-believe injury list. Research by Shehan Jeyarajah, who covers Baylor for Diehards.com, indicates that the Bears have had at least 25 starters/backups miss at least one game. Baylor has lost 10 starters for the season. Rhule’s team, which already had depth issues, is 0-8.

The first-year coach said Tuesday that linebacker Clay Johnston and wide receiver Pooh Stricklin could miss the rest of the season. Each are suffering from a sprained foot.

Statistics … are for winners

  • With four regular-season games remaining, Oklahoma already has three running backs with 400 yards rushing – freshman Trey Sermon (487 yards), sophomore Abdul Adams (467) and sophomore Rodney Anderson (410). The last time the Sooners had three backs finish with 400 or more yards rushing was 2008, the last time they played for the national championship.
  • According to Steve Berkowitz of USA Today (who is a demon tracking coaching contract details), Iowa State coach Matt Campbell earned a $500,000 bonus with the Cyclones’ sixth victory. That’s more than the total pay of 13 FBS head coaches this season

Statistics … are for losers

  • Before Saturday’s 14-7 loss at Iowa State, TCU coach Gary Patterson had a 106-3 record when the Frogs allowed 14 or fewer points.
  • In the first quarter at Oklahoma Saturday night, Texas Tech’s offense ran 21 plays for 211 yards and scored 20 points. Over the final three quarters, the Red Raiders had 49 offensive snaps for 226 yards and scored seven points.

Quote, unquote

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is 9-1 in games played Nov. 1 and later, on Saturday’s Bedlam showdown at Oklahoma State:

“I love it. I love the big stage. I love a good atmosphere. I think it’s a good opportunity to show the country what we’re made of.”

Iowa State senior wide receiver Allen Lazard after the Cyclones’ victory over TCU, their second over a top five team in a month:

“It’s crazy, isn’t it? What’s crazier is that we still haven’t played our best.”

TCU coach Gary Patterson, whose team suffered its first loss Saturday at Iowa State, saying he had no plans to watch the announcement of the first College Football Playoff Rankings Tuesday night:

“Remember I’m the team that went from third to sixth [in 2014].”