In a Conference Built on Scoring, Pac-12 Defenses on a Hard Learning Curve
Offenses defines the Pac-12. Five of the nation's 20 highest scoring offenses call the conference home. A season ago, five of its offenses ranked No. 37 or higher. So goes, season after season.
Pac-12 defenses face a lofty challenge week-in and week-out. The conference has long been known for flashy offenses and big point totals, but Chip Kelly's introduction of a new brand of hurry-up scheme ushered in an era of unprecedented point production.
The stakes are raised for opposing defenses even more so in 2013 than ever before. Thanks to the offensive improvements, teams around the conference have been forced to adapt to keep pace.
Oregon continues to set the tone offensively under Mark Helfrich thanks to the added dimension sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota provides as a true dual-threat. The SEC's Tennessee Volunteers got a taste of what weekly defensive preparation is like in the Pac-12, especially against the conference's very best at running the hurry-up offense.
"Anytime you have a quarterback who can throw the ball and run the football, you’re always a gap short, you’re always a man short," Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said following his team's 59-14 loss at Oregon, per UTSports.com.
Due to the widening of the field this offensive scheme creates, opposing defenses are forced to attack the line while remaining in sideline-to-sideline coverage. A defense must play like it has a baker's dozen on the field.
Stanford tapped into the formula without drawing flags for too many men on the field.
A Stanford education is ranked among the very best in the world, and professors there oversee a challenging curriculum. On the Stanford gridiron, however, mastering defense against potent offenses was not at all complex—at least, not as linebacker Shayne Skov described it during July's Pac-12 media day.
"When you're playing spread offenses you have to work at great tackling. We work on that all year round" he said. "Being fundamental and communication because when you are spread out and sped up, you have to focus and be calm and get the same calls and communication across the board with all the players."
"Those two things: that's how we combat the spread offense," he added.
Communication and proper tackling technique—it seems almost too simple to be true. And to a certain extent, it is.
Where Stanford's key to stopping the spread seems to borrow from the SEC is the emphasize on sheer talent going to the defensive side.
There's an oft-repeated mantra from that part of the country, saying a team must put its most talented players on defense.
During Pac-12 media day, Stanford head coach David Shaw credited much of the program's rise to the defense's improved speed.
"Years past, people said, 'yeah, [Stanford has] some great athletes. But they don't have speed,'" he said. "If you watch the tapes [now], we have an unbelievable secondary that can cover ground, make plays and score touchdowns, and that's one of the biggest changes in our team."
Other Pac-12 teams are similarly stacking the defensive side with speedy playmakers. UCLA head coach Jim Mora moved Anthony Barr, a running back, to linebacker last season. All Barr has done since is become one of the most prolific pass rushers in the nation.
Having a player like Barr who can make one or two high-impact plays per game is essential to surviving the Pac-12's offensive onslaught.
Take Saturday, when Stanford ground Arizona State's own high-powered offense to a halt for much of the way. But after yielding just seven points through three quarters, the Sun Devils posted 21 unanswered points in the fourth.
Arizona State's outburst points to a larger reality of defending high-tempo spread offenses on a weekly basis. When an opponent runs 80 plays, as the Sun Devils did Saturday, the odds that one goes for big yardage or a touchdown is obviously greater.
Countering the big offensive play often means relying on the big defensive play. Five of the nation's top 11 teams in sacks a season ago were from the Pac-12. Four of the nine defenses with the most interception were also Pac-12 teams.
While the total numbers were at least in part because of seeing more snaps, defenses need to prevent explosive plays either by getting to the quarterback or creating turnovers precipitated by this style.
Lane Kiffin's addition of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to the staff in the offseason is a testament to the importance of the big play.
Pendergast's 52 base formation thrives on attacking every blocking gap. So far for the Trojans, it's netted 16 total sacks.
The Trojans' ability to bring pressure with Leonard Williams, George Uko and Morgan Breslin also translates to opportunities for the secondary. Pressured passes turn into interceptions, which USC has found on six occasions this season.
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham may have described it best at Pac-12 media day, saying a secondary flourished "when you're knocking the quarterback on his can."
To that end, the Sun Devils were the nation's fourth leading team in interceptions in 2012, capitalizing in part of the No. 2 overall sack defense tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford spearheaded.
Only Oregon was more proficient at generating interceptions among Pac-12 teams.
It would make sense Oregon would have a formula for slowing down the potent offenses around the conference, considering coordinator Nick Aliotti's unit sees the Pac-12's forerunner on a daily basis.
"We want to put pressure on the quarterback, whether it's [creating] anxiety in terms of our looks or rushing the passer," Helfrich said following Oregon's Tennessee win per GoDucks.com. "When you tackle well and don’t give up those explosive plays that’s how that happens."
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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