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Big 12: 'Tempo' the name of the game

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The good news for West Virginia's football program is that tempo offense, popularized in part by Mountaineers Coach Dana Holgorsen, isn't going anywhere.

The bad news is the same as the good news, and WVU is going to have to deal with this throughout the Big 12 and beyond. To hear the participants tell it, there's no stopping tempo.

"Offense controls tempo. Defense can't do anything about it," Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy said.

It's a riveting reality, considering the phases college football produces. Offenses do something that produces an edge for a few years and then defenses counter and take a lead. The cycle repeats as coaches usher in one era while they store another in the basement.

This obsession with limiting the time between snaps and overwhelming defenses with as many plays as possible is different. The counter isn't necessarily available on film or in coaching clinics.

"You play well, tackle well, line up," Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops said. "Is there any way? Not really. You have to be as efficient as they are. So if they're able to get to the line, get their call and get ready to play, whatever pace that may be, you've got to be efficient enough defensively to have your call in order, to have it relayed and to be down in position to play.

"As much as anything to counter it, you've got to be as prepared to play on the snap with the tempo as they have to be. From there, it's who's going to make the play?"

* * *

STOOPS' WORDS should carry meaning. His Oklahoma teams were among the first to push their foot through the floorboard.

"I remember in our Oklahoma game in 2008, (Texas defensive coordinator) Will Muschamp was calling our defense in the first quarter, and the kids were looking at their wristbands, and the ball was being snapped, and they're running 20 yards, and we're still looking at the wristbands," Texas Coach Mack Brown said. "Will and I decided, 'Let's throw out all the calls, play base defense, and let's play because we're standing around looking.'"

The Longhorns averaged 68.5 snaps per game last season - worse than Kansas. Brown has empowered co-offensive coordinator, and former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite, to mimic the tempo around the conference so that the offense will average 80-plus snaps per game.

And while that's good for the Texas offense that's been slow to change, it is perhaps better for the defense.

"What I do think is that last year our defense was at a disadvantage in this league because we had trouble preparing for tempo by not seeing it every day in practice," Brown said of the Texas defense that ranked No. 6 in the Big 12 and No. 72 in the nation in points per game.

"So we felt like it was very, very important for us to make sure our defensive coaches and our players got to practice every day against what they were trying to prepare for on Saturday because, if you haven't seen the tempo offense on a regular basis, it's a very difficult thing to do."

That's the best coaches can come up with, though it might be the smartest plan. Most are convinced formations and personnel packages aren't the answer because tempo strikes before the defense can organize and attack. The advantage for the offense is to play fast and prevent the defenses from doing something. The defense then guards the offense best by matching tempo with tempo.

"You don't slow them down and beat tempo in that regard," Iowa State Coach Paul Rhoads said. "You just figure out a way to play fast and execute your scheme as well as you can and then you just try to create some problems for them."

* * *

THE OFFENSES have a pretty simple tool to solve whatever trouble the defenses can muster.

"It's all based on the quarterback," Gundy said. "If your quarterback knows what he's doing, (the defense) is not going to be a factor. He's got to be able to count to seven."

The defenses aren't given a lot of time to be very exotic, whether with a 3-4 or a 4-3 front, and the offenses know that and have taken advantage of it.

"We coach our (offensive) guys that when we're playing fast, it's a minimal thought process," Texas Tech coach and former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said. "We know the defense wants to be the same way. They don't want an elaborate scheme going on. When we're playing fast, we're trying to communicate it and get everyone on the same page. What we've seen is usually pretty basic. Teams try to play straight up just to get their guys in position."

More and more, defenses will stick to basics and won't stray too far from them. The reaction coaches expect to witness is not a parade of complex defenses or gimmicks that will cause punts or turnovers and then slow down offenses.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

"I think you're going to see people doing fewer things out there now and trying to do fewer things more," Kansas Coach Charlie Weis said. "Think about it now. If you have trouble getting lined up and you're trying to get from one play to the next, it's not affecting the offense as much as it's affecting the defense.

"So get the defense lined up the same way every time so you know they're going to be ready to go when the ball is snapped. I think that's the most critical factor: Be ready to go when the ball is snapped. You can try to get in as many calls as you can but the No. 1 thing is you better be ready to go when ball is snapped."

* * *

THIS DOESN'T mean coaches are about to surrender. A team's personnel remains imperative.

"You have to look at who your pass rushers are," Brown said. "You have to look at are you playing nickel, dime? Can you play with three linebackers on a regular basis in this league? We're looking at running the ball against smaller defenses if you've got nickel and dime in the game, and people are really good in this league at what they're doing on offense.

"And at the same time, you're looking at having to be two-deep on defense, in my estimation, and really on offense as well because of the speed of this game."

Depth is important, but that's at the risk of experience. Maturity matters because defenses need players who are wise enough to communicate on the field or play on their own.

Versatility is making a push, too. WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson wants to use defensive ends and linebackers to float between a 3-4 and ad 4-3. Texas Tech's Kerry Hyder was an all-Big 12 defensive tackle last season. He'll be an end this season, but play all three spots on the line. Kansas junior college transfer Cassius Sendish will play cornerback and safety.

"I think one thing you're seeing is defenses are trying to find hybrid players who are tall enough and strong enough to play the run, but who can also drop to play the pass," Gundy said.

TCU has the best example with a 4-2-5 look and a hybrid linebacker/safety in Sam Carter. It is their base defense and not a situational package. The multiplicity the defense creates is the main, though not the only reason Coach Gary Patterson is so confident against tempo.

"The problem with going fast is if you go too fast, you don't get a chance to check, and if I have a better call than you have on that play, you're going to get thrown for a loss or a sack," Patterson said. "That's changing schemes. I'm calling a different blitz. One time I'm man blitzing, one time I'm zone blitzing, the next time I'm slanting."

Patterson doesn't have to substitute to change his tactics, which combats the offense's advantages. The Horned Frogs can stay apace and still make changes to keep the league's offensive players and coaches on their back foot.

That then gives the defense time to do things to the offense.

"We try to coach defense like offense," Patterson said. "We're going to audible by where they put their back, by what the formation is, by everything they do. It's rolled into our call. That's the way we teach it."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.

 


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