The Big 12 is known for offense. Wide open, throw it all over, read option run, and RPO’s. The conference is much maligned for its lack of defense. The “myth” is perpetuated by the gaudy offensive numbers put up by conference front-runners Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and bolstered by emerging teams like West Virginia and Texas Tech. The teams in the mix at the top represent the top offenses in the league. But, two of the teams in contention, TCU and Iowa State, are winning with defense, special teams and patient offense.
Gary Patterson, while always fielding a solid offensive squad, has built his reputation on his defensive genius and playing an offensive system that compliments his players and his defensive plans. He has moved with the times and fielded fantastic offenses using more “Big 12” type personnel groupings and play calling philosophy, but it has always been grounded in a conservative attack with opportunistic stabs at the big play.
TCU was not a lock to rise to the top of the conference this year. There was some pre-season optimism, but the 7-0 record could be deemed a surprise. How they have amassed their unblemished record has been a testament to Patterson’s values as a coach and sets a precedent for teams to follow in the future.
Iowa State (5-2, 3-1) has been the biggest surprise in the conference with road wins against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. They have a tough slate ahead and do not have the historic underpinnings of winning tradition that TCU does, but, like TCU, they have achieved early success in much the same manner.
Iowa State has an identity that has been developed in the last three games, hardly a harbinger of things to come, but Matt Campbell has taken a page from the Gary Patterson playbook and is winning with defense, special teams and patient offense.
As I reviewed film of these teams, the similarities were striking.
- Both have a quarterback with limitations. Kyle Kempt is a reserve thrust in to the starting role who utilizes decision making and timing to be successful as opposed to physical talent and speed. Kenny Hill has struggled with decision making in the past, but has been placed in a position where the hard decisions are eliminated and his timing is accelerated thus giving him a chance to succeed. The methods for maximizing the quarterback talent are the same for both teams.
- Both teams have strong running games. TCU has multiple backs, a mobile quarterback, and a solid offensive line that allows them to grind out yardage and grind down the clock. Iowa State’s offensive line struggles, but David Montgomery remains a threat due to next level talent. While Iowa State lags TCU in run game efficiency, they are equally dependent on it to gain yardage and time of possession.
- Special teams are stellar at both schools. TCU and Iowa State are solid in coverage and are both a threat to flip field position in the return game. The kicking game is sound. Most importantly, neither is penalized highly nor a threat to turn the ball over. Sound, with potential explosiveness in the special teams can alter a game and TCU and Iowa State practice and execute them at a high level.
- Defense. It is no surprise that no one can run the ball against TCU. Year after year it is the same. It is a huge surprise that no one can run the ball on Iowa State. But, the teams are first and second in rush defense in the conference. They use different alignments and base defenses to accomplish the same results.
- TCU is excellent against the pass and Iowa State has been as well. Again there are different alignments used by both teams to accomplish their proficiency, but the base philosophy and results are extremely similar.
I am forced to consider that a blueprint, forged by the Gary Patterson system, is being recreated at Iowa State and leading both teams to win in the Big 12 with a defense first philosophy. While both teams give up yards, they both employ a three-pronged priority in their defensive scheme.
First, play strong against the run, filling all gaps aggressively while appearing to be outnumbered. Second, play coverage that limits big plays and forces quarterbacks to make correct and patient decisions for 60 minutes. Finally, tackle.
Yes, these are the two best tackling teams in the Big 12 at present. Plays completed in front of the defense are not allowed to turn in to big plays. TCU is the top dog in the tackling universe of the Big 12, but Iowa State has emerged not far behind. A large part of the tackling success of both teams is providing multiple defenders to the attack point to secure the tackles. There are fewer one on one tackling opportunities against these defenses than there are against others.
Defense sets these teams apart from the other title competitors, and it is the defense that I want to analyze.
Just to illustrate the point and extrapolate for the overall theme of the article, I have pulled some representative clips. These are all defensive clips aimed at describing what both teams are doing to slow down the Big 12 offensive machine, and to set themselves up to win each week.
This is an example of the TCU base 4-2-5 defense against Oklahoma State. OSU is in a common run formation for them and attempts lead play with a lead block from a fullback. It is a decent play call as OSU develops a numbers advantage on the right side with the motion with a 4-3 count. However, TCU stops the play for a minimal gain and wins on this first down.
The key is in the rotation to the ball and the lane discipline of the front seven. In addition, the third level support is in position to mop up the play. Note the defensive end to the play side (along with the DT). He aggressively attacks up field which sets the edge and frames the play to the inside. TCU is dynamite at setting the edge and containing the edge run.
The lead block is not bad here as the LB is occupied and does not make the tackle. But, the TCU linebacker collisions the fullback behind the line of scrimmage and forces an early adjustment to the runners route. This type of aggressive gap fill has a chilling effect on a running play. It is routine for TCU and hard to manage as an offensive play caller.
Now, look to the back side. The backside defensive lineman are not reached and instead fight through the initial fit and move laterally down the line to close the cut back lanes. Their disciplined and steady movement leaves the weakside linebacker free to read and scrape to the ball. He makes the tackle with an assist from the safety who is crashing downhill in outside support.
TCU sets the edge, maintains leverage in the gaps, collapses the second level with linebacker fill, and forces the edges with secondary support. What looks like a numbers advantage in the run game becomes a disadvantage when the front seven acts in concert to fill and collapse with discipline. If one of the key players mentioned above jumps out of his assignment or is slow to read the play, then a gap is created and the running back will be running at the third level. That rarely happens and this illustrates why TCU is hard to run against year in and year out.
This is not the best example from Iowa State, but will do. It is a forced fumble against Texas Tech that set up an opportunity to widen the margin. The play is illustrative of Iowa State accomplishing the same run game pressure that TCU does, but from a different base set.
Iowa State has been running a 3-5-3 base set or some variation thereof. They use three down lineman, two or three linebackers, a hybrid safety, and your usual cadre of corners and safeties.
Iowa State gives a go look for the run game on every play. There are from 4 to 6 players in the box against most offensive sets which leads a coordinator to believe there is room to run the ball. In this play, there are six in the box with a 3-3 look.
The difference for Iowa State is that everything is keyed off of the middle players as opposed to TCU where the edge players collapse plays. The nose and the middle linebacker for ISU set the tone. The nose occupies space and blockers and the middle linebacker reads and fills to the target gap.
On this play the playside end does not set the edge, but holds his ground at the line of scrimmage. The nose explodes in to the backfield causing the ball carrier to make an early cut. The nose is also the player that pulls the ball loose. The middle linebacker sheds his block and is a third man to the target gap.
Notice number 3, 4, and 5, the safeties for Iowa State. At the snap they are aggressively filling the edge and middle gaps. Number 4 is playside. He takes a risky route, but is in position on the edge to make the tackle. Number 5 has collapsed down to cover the cut back and number 3 collapses the 3rd level to read and clean up any missed tackles along the front.
Strong play in the interior spills run plays to the edge where the outside linebackers and safeties are aggressively filling the gaps to make the tackle. A six man box becomes a nine man box upon immediate recognition of run action. Iowa State, like TCU takes a numbers deficit and turns it in to a numbers advantage with aggressive and disciplined pursuit to the football.
The same concept is employed from different defensive schemes. Hold and stay on path up front. Read, scrape, and collapse from the second level. Fill, force, and tackle from the edge support. It takes solid coaching and high level preparation to put your defense in a place where all 11 are acting in concert. Both TCU and ISU have been able to maintain that level against their first four Big 12 opponents and have only one loss between them as a result.
On second and third and long, you will observe TCU shift to a three-man front to play drop 8 coverage. They will have five across the under zone and three deep over the top. If the zone is played with discipline and communication, then there are few quick options that can be successfully completed against the coverage.
Here, Oklahoma State has called a play with a standard route combination for them. The send multiple players deep with a mid-range route as a safety valve. The quarterback has time, but no safe throws to make. As the quarterback moves, the three-man rush catches up and creates a turnover. This is a coverage sack and turnover.
Ideally, the defensive end, number 15 would maintain lane discipline and prevent the quarterback escape to the outside. However, his speed allows him to recover and force backside pressure that the quarterback does not recognize. TCU has the luxury of allowing its speed to cover a mistake or two, which gives them a decided advantage over most Big 12 defensive units.
Now, an opposing offense does not trust its run advantage and is forced to transition to its passing game to move the ball. TCU is in ideal position to gain a numbers advantage in coverage because their initial alignment has placed them in the proper position. The offense is forced to pick its poison and play conservatively in order to move the ball effectively. It is that conundrum that cuts in to the tendency of Big 12 coordinators and effectively forces turnovers and punts.
Iowa State drops 8 on almost every pass play. They play disciplined, keep the plays in front of them and target receivers from multiple angles. This play results in a turnover, but is an example of how the coverage scheme has worked for Iowa State.
Iowa State is playing deeper than usual in their 3-5-3 set, but the principle is the same. Tech is showing pass pre-snap and Iowa State is prepared. Tech uses motion to attempt to slide the defense to the wide side of the field. However, ISU already has all the zones covered with the five under coverage. There is no need to adjust, and they don’t.
Second, the screen action releases the nose to the QB. He maintains his lane discipline and forces a slightly early throw with pressure in the face of the quarterback. The most important player on this play is the defensive end to the play side. He doesn’t do much, but he maintains his lane discipline which places him in the path of the through. The 6-foot-6 player forces the ball to be thrown with more loft and touch.
Number 42 reads the play as it develops based on preparation. He breaks and the lofted pass turns a big hit in to a pick six.
The drop eight played with discipline not only gums up routes run as in the TCU clip, but also accounts for misdirection by placing players in the proper place and allowing the play to develop in front of you. It allows for a quick reaction to both the run and pass and leaves coordinators to be patient and search for plays to beat the defense.
TCU adds an element that Iowa State does not. Their base pass defense shown above.
TCU utilizes man coverage on the outside with 2 deep safeties over the top and zone in the curl and hook zones. This combo coverage is hard to beat and Oklahoma State had a difficult time with it in their game.
TCU can get pressure with their front four against most teams. This leaves the seven cover players in solid position to defend the pass. Note the corners are in press position on the wide side and in tight zone position on the short side. The slot corner takes the inside route and the corner takes the outside route.
The key here is that the slot corner has help to the inside from the zone backers, the outside corner has help deep from the deep safety, and the wide side corner has help inside and deep from the linebackers and safety. It is essentially double coverage across the field.
The quarterback has no options and throws the ball away. Not every play is defended this well, but there are a limited number of plays that can defeat the coverage scheme and throws must be made accurately in to tighter windows than against other opponents.
I believe these concepts are the reason that TCU and Iowa State are having success in the Big 12. In a general sense, they force opposing offenses to be patient, to guess, and to execute at a higher level than most college offenses are capable of doing. TCU forces mistakes with speed and discipline and will employ pressure in their package as well. Iowa State forces the game to played at a slower pace and waits for an opportunistic lapse in execution.
Big 12 offenses thrive on mismatches, blown assignments, and conflicted defenders. These defenses are vulnerable to each and have shown lapses, but they are designed to take away each of those schematic advantages. Both teams have allowed less than 16 points per game in Big 12 play (aided by a game apiece against Kansas). That is worthy of consideration as a “new” blueprint for success in the Big 12.