West Virginia Football: 3-3-5 or 3-4-4: Which Equals Big 12 9-0?

Tim McGheeCorrespondent IIISeptember 6, 2012

The end of the days in which West Virginia uses the 3-3-5 defense is upon us.  Dana Holgorsen has chosen to go with a 3-4-4 set, or commonly known as the 3-4, and has hired co-defensive coordinators to lead the way.

The issues are: Is the 3-4 defense the better scheme for Big 12 Conference competition?  Or should Holgorsen stick with the tried-and-true 3-3-5?

For 11 seasons, Jeff Casteel served West Virginia University as a defensive coach.  Rich Rodriguez brought Casteel to Morgantown as defensive line coach in 2001.  In 2002, he shared the defensive coordinator duties, and the following year, Casteel became the WVU’s sole defensive coordinator.

Jeff Casteel is the guru of the 3-3-5, or 3-3-5 stack, or 3-3 stack or 30 stack.

The formation uses three down linemen, including a nose tackle, three linebackers and five defensive backs. The 3-3-5 is preferred by some because, more so than other schemes, the coach calls the sets and the players don’t have to read and think but simply attack their responsibilities.  One coach describes the 3-3-5 as “intelligent chaos.”

A coach would also use the 3-3-5 if his defensive players are relatively small, yet fast, and/or if he wants to disrupt the offense with odd looks and fast players given the license to fly around and hit somebody.

Whatever you call it or however it looks, it worked.  West Virginia employed the 3-3-5 and enjoyed many seasons of successful defensive football. 


In 2005, WVU ranked 15th in total defense and 13th in scoring defense.  The Mountaineers occupied the top 10 in both total defense and scoring defense in 2007, and ranked 11th in scoring defense in 2008 as well as leading the nation in red zone defense in the same year.

The 3-3-5 stack alignment may seem a little strange to the casual college football fan.  That’s because it is.  It looks as if the coach left the line of scrimmage bare.  Nevertheless, several schools last 2011 season—successful teams like Boise State and Texas Christian—ran a 4-2-5, a version of the 3-3-5 with a defensive end who can line up as a linebacker.

Wikipedia has an article on the 3-3-5 defense.  I cite the article as a reference.

I cite observation as references for the remainder of the discussion of the 3-3-5 defense.

I discussed earlier the reasons for using a 3-3-5.  His team is small but fast.  He wants to disrupt the opponent’s offense.  Add in “the linemen, linebackers and two corners have to be mean as rattlesnake spit,” and you have the best description of the football philosophy, and maybe the life philosophy, of Rich Rodriguez.

Please allow me to interject the subject of Rich Rodriguez in the discussion of the 3-3-5 defense.  It’s relevant.

I don’t know how you feel about Coach Rod, but I think he’s a genius, albeit a genius cutting the swath in a gridiron Greek tragedy. 


Rich Rodriguez took the attitude and bearing Don Nehlen established and shoved it into overdrive.  In the Sugar Bowl of the 2005 season, Rodriguez finally hit paydirt.  West Virginia, after four years of starts and stops, defeated Georgia—in Atlanta—in pure Rich Rod fashion.


Rodriguez and his team got off the bus in hostile territory to play the champion of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s finest conference.  He dominated the game early, then lost momentum and bent but did not break.  The Coach sunk his claws in and hung on, finally sealing the win with an unprecedented swashbuckling gamble.

That’s the Coach Rod we had all come to know and love.  The 3-3-5 stack represents everything the coach brought to West Virginia.

Two years later, Rich Rodriguez would inauspiciously resign.  He left the team for which he played as a walk-on, and moved on from his home state, derided by many West Virginians and guarded by security details.

I write about Rich Rodriguez because the Jeff Casteel of 2008 through 2011 was Rodriguez’s legacy.  The defensive coordinator did well in ’08, ’09 and ’10, closing out his final season in the West Virginia coaching box as a champion. 

Casteel is credited with leading the Mountaineers late in the season, as the defense made crucial plays in the three wins WVU absolutely had to have, at Cincinnati, hosting Pittsburgh, and at South Florida.  He kept an ultra-talented, attacking Clemson under 34 in the Orange Bowl, effectively shutting the Tigers down in the second half.


As the oranges were being squeezed, Jeff Casteel resigned from his position at West Virginia heroic, with bittersweet Coach Rod irony, to join Rodriguez as defensive coordinator with Arizona.


It was in Dana Holgorsen’s hands to find Casteel’s replacement.  Whether he didn’t favor the 3-3-5 defense I don’t know, but Holgorsen took the opportunity to hire co-defensive coordinators and set the defense up in a 3-4 scheme. 

The new defensive gurus are Joe DeForest from Oklahoma State, one of the nation’s top special teams coaches, and Keith Patterson, the 2011 defensive coordinator from Pittsburgh.

The 3-3-5 is designed to counterattack the spread and cover receivers by being the all-the-time “nickel,” The 3-4, on the other hand, can be described as a set to defend against a pro offense.  That's why a number of National Football League teams incorporate the 3-4 defense, and why the 3-4 is a good set for the Big 12 Conference. 

Six of the nine West Virginia opponents in the Big 12 Conference return the team’s starting quarterback.  Three of those—Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, Seth Doege at Texas Tech and Casey Pachell of TCU—have shown the ability and willingness to air it out. 

Baylor’s Nick Florence is coming off the bench to take over for Robert Griffin III, and possesses a passing arm. 


And, don’t forget Kansas’s head coach Charlie Weis has brought his Irish rifle, Dayne Crist, to spend his senior season matching up with the Big 12’s best signal callers.

Let's go back to the 3-4 defense as it is employed in the NFL. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers has lined up in the 3-4 as the team’s primary defense since 1982, the year after Joe Greene and L. C. Greenwood retired. Then and now, with or maybe because of the 3-4, Pittsburgh is well-known for its toughness on that side of the ball, leading the league in total defense in the 2001 season.    


New England upset Pittsburgh in the AFC conference championship game that year.  The Steelers 3-4 held the Patriots offense to ten points, but lost the game on horrid special teams play.

The Patriots went on to win Super Bowl XXXVI in 2001.  The following season, the Bill Belichick interestingly switched to a 3-4 set and ran it through the 2010 season.

It’s no coincidence that Pittsburgh and New England, disciples of the 3-4, have essentially dominated the NFL’s first 12 years of the new millennium.  Of the dozen Super Bowls played since 2000, the Steelers or the Patriots have appeared in eight and won five.

The 3-4 scheme is appealing to NFL defensive coordinators as well as WVU’s DeForest and Patterson because the linebackers, pro and West Virginia, are fast and hostile and positioned so any of the four could be the fourth, or fifth or sixth man rushing the quarterback.

The proper construction of a 3-4 defense is critical to its proper execution.  According to Joe Collier, the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos for 1969-1988 and the architect of the modern-day 3-4, the coach builds the team around the nose tackle, the player lining up on the center's head. 

That big man is the most crucial man on the defense, maybe the entire team.  He has to be huge, physically stronger than any other player, possess cat-like balance and be mentally tough enough to keep his motor running through the constant battles with two or three offensive linemen each and every play.


That means the nose tackle essentially blocks the center and guards from the inside linebackers so they can circle around and do their damage making plays in pass coverage, quarterback blitzing and run blitzing.


Similarly, the defensive ends have their shots at the quarterback, but they block offensive tackles and tight ends for the outside linebackers.  The ends are taller and lighter than the nose tackle, and are therefore able to hold his ground at the point of attack to allow the linebackers to rush, blitz or run blitz, creating general mayhem with the quarterback and getting tackles.

I’m sure there is much more to say about both defensive sets, the 3-3-5 and the 3-4, but not in the scope of 1,700 words.  I did not discuss the defensive backfields, except to say the corners in the 3-3-5 stack have to be abusively physical.  Adam Jones comes to mind.  I’ll always remember how tough Jones was as he took on Miami tight end/receiver Kellen Winslow, Jr. in the 2003 game.

College safeties with speed and a nasty streak must bring it on the occasional blitz.  I'll never forget West Virginia's Mike Lorello, the quintessential college defensive back/safety, drawing a bead on the quarterback bogey with Casteel's delayed blitz.

Eight of the 10 teams in the Big 12 play a basic 4-3 augmented with a nose tackle.  The other two are West Virginia, of course, and TCU in the 4-2-5 I discussed earlier.

So, there’s a lot of pro-type passing in the conference, and defenses also line up like the NFL.  WVU’s 3-4 goes along with that look.

In my opinion, Dana Holgorsen should use the 3-4 instead of the 3-3-5.  West Virginia has the personnel required by the 3-4 to plug up the line of scrimmage, as they did last year in the basic 3-3 stack.  The difference this year is the number of major college-sized mobile and hostile linebackers the Mountaineers can put on the field at any time.  The 200-lb. safeties also do a lot to help things.


Just one more thing: Holgorsen may want to shake things up when Kansas State visits Morgantown.  Quarterback Collin Klein can beat you like Pat White, so a spread-stopping defense may be at least part of the answer.



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