Criticism of the hurry-up offenses springing up around college football has ranged from disingenuous to distasteful. But while the NCAA Football Rules Committee deliberates the merits of a proposed defensive substitution window, Pac-12 defenses have their own counter to an increasingly fast style of play.
Pac-12 defenses countered the conference's many uptempo offenses by generating more turnovers in the last two seasons. Five of the league's defenses ranked No. 26 or better in takeaways in 2013; eight were No. 25 or better in 2012.
Leading that remarkable eight-team contingent in 2012 was Oregon, the conference's most uptempo offensive team and its greediest defensive side.
Oregon was the conference's prototype for building a title contender on a foundation of the hurry-up offense when former head coach Mike Bellotti hired Chip Kelly as its coordinator. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, an Oregon assistant since 1999, tailored his 3-4 hybrid defense to complement the uptempo scheme.
As the Ducks offense played faster each season, the Ducks defense was feeding that need for speed with quickness of its own.
Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times equated Aliotti's substitution strategy to line shifts in hockey in a December 2011 column, and the since-retired Aliotti expounded to The Oregonian before facing Cal's uptempo bear raid in September 2013.
"[W]e’re pretty good at it," he said. “We’re ready to go almost as soon as the play’s over. We haven’t had a problem yet because we practice so lightning fast."
The other component of Oregon's uptempo defensive strategy bears a similarity to late UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden's advice via CoachWooden.com: "Be quick, but don't hurry."
Making quick plays to the ball is an exercise in patience, to which Oregon players have been keenly adept. In his breakdown of defending hurry-up offenses, B/R's Michael Felder explains the chess game.
[I]f a team is patient enough to throw nothing but check-downs and dink-and-dunk you down the field for an entire game, then so be it. Most teams are not patient enough to do this. They are used to big plays, used to things happening quickly and used to players breaking short throws for big gainers.
The Ducks' 42-14 win over UCLA was a perfect example of this defensive philosophy in action. Oregon forced two turnovers of the Bruins' hurry-up offense. Linebacker Boseko Lokombo made a quick play on the ball that exploited UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley's attempt to thread a pass through traffic.
Head coach Mark Helfrich credited Aliotti's strategy in the postgame press conference per GoDucks.com.
[A] little bit of pressure got to them and created a turnover or a guy made a great break on the ball in space. Exactly, that’s our formula. We’re going to pick and choose our pressures and try to confound and confuse and Nick and his staff did an incredible job.
Other Pac-12 programs followed Oregon's offensive lead after the Ducks won three consecutive conference championships from 2009 through 2011, and defenses like Arizona State's followed.
Head coach Todd Graham brought 20 years of hurry-up offensive experience to Arizona State in 2012. He also brought a defensive philosophy predicated on forcing opposing offenses into mistakes and capitalizing on those mistakes.
Graham's 2010 Tulsa team boasted the nation's No. 6 scoring offense, and the third most productive turnover-creating defense. Likewise, his 2013 Arizona State team ranked No. 10 in scoring offense and No. 5 in takeaways.
Of course, more plays means more opportunities for takeaways. But the opposite is also true—offenses are in more situations wherein a turnover is possible, yet Pac-12 teams ranked as highly in turnover margin as they did in just the total number of turnovers, with five teams at No. 31 or better.
Arizona State's opponents ran 942 plays, resulting in 33 turnovers. In other words, a turnover every roughly 28 snaps. Compare that to Big Ten champion Michigan State, a team employing a more traditional offense and playing in a conference that, as Football Study Hall notes, was at one point in the season last in average pace of play.
The Spartans defense faced 873 snaps and gained 28 turnovers, or approximately one takeaway for every 31 snaps.
In other words, turnover creation isn't necessarily a byproduct of increased tempo. It is, however, a hallmark of a strong defense, even when pitted against hurry-up offenses.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Stats compiled via CFBstats.com.