OFI: A Defense Grows in Lubbock?
by Matt Hinton
If you were scripting West Virginia's tumble from the national conversation, you probably could have guessed it would come with the opposing offense putting 49 points on the board with 600-plus yards of total offense, as Texas Tech did Saturday in a startling 49-14 upset in Lubbock. After their high-flying wins over Baylor and Texas, it didn't exactly take decades of expertise to diagnose the Mountaineers secondary as a vulnerable tinderbox. That wasn't supposed to matter, though, because of the West Virginia offense: a versatile, multi-headed juggernaut armed with the most feted passer in college football, Geno Smith, who surely would not meet his match in the shootout-friendly Big 12.
As it turned out, all the shooting in Lubbock was coming from the other side: after scoring on their second possession of the game, the Mountaineers were subsequently shut out on nine consecutive drives before finally cracking the end zone again on a meaningless score in the final three minutes. Smith, the undisputed Heisman frontrunner, came in boasting 24 touchdown passes for the season, with at least three in every game; he left with just one, and came nowhere near his season averages for efficiency, completion percentage, total yards, or yards per pass. As a team, West Virginia turned the ball over on downs five times and failed to score at least 21 points for the first time in "Air Raid" guru Dana Holgorsen's 19-game tenure as head coach. The polls, which had lifted the Mountaineers into the top five on the strength of their win in Austin, responded to the unexpected turn with maximum severity.
At least they also had the decency to accompany WVU's descent with a solid boost for Texas Tech, which appears to be in the midst of one of the most remarkable defensive turnarounds in recorded history. The Red Raiders were the first to introduce the dusty, option-bound Big 12 to the up-tempo, pass-happy spread that has taken hold of the conference over the last decade (Holgorsen spent years as a Texas Tech assistant under spread-passing prophet Mike Leach), and has grown accustomed to languishing at the bottom of the league's defensive standings as a result. But even by that standard, 2011 marked a nadir: In their second season under Leach's more defensive-minded successor, Tommy Tuberville, the Raiders finished 114th nationally in total defense, 113th against the pass, and 117th in scoring, yielding a ghastly 47.5 points per game in the course of dropping seven of their last eight. Back against the wall, Tuberville responded last winter by hiring an old colleague, Art Kaufman, as Tech's fourth new defensive coordinator in four years.
Through six games, so far, so good. It's been kind of great, actually. At the end of a soft September slate, Tech was 4-0 and led the nation in total defense, sitting awkwardly alongside the likes of Alabama, LSU and Florida State. After back-to-back games against high-octane attacks from Oklahoma and now West Virginia, the Raiders still rank fourth in total defense and seventh in pass efficiency allowed, best in the Big 12 on both counts. They held the same Oklahoma offense that just exploded for 667 yards against Texas below 400, and kept West Virginia below 400 until the Mountaineers' last few snaps of garbage time.
If nothing else, Tech fans might want to take a picture of those numbers to remember them by. At this point last year, the midseason snapshot showed Texas Tech at 5-2 and ranked 19th following an inexplicable upset of undefeated Oklahoma in Norman. From there, the 2011 Raiders collapsed completely, with five consecutive losses to end the season. The 2012 edition is 5-1, ranked 20th and facing back-to-back road trips at TCU and Kansas State. Get that photo in now, while you still can, and check back in a month.
- Ole Miss crushed Auburn Saturday, 41-20, to end a two-year, 16-game SEC losing streak. It surprised no one. At this point, Auburn fans have resigned themselves to a succession of progressively deeper humiliations, beginning in September with a depressing loss at Mississippi State and continuing through last week's 24-7 flop against Arkansas. If not for a narrow overtime escape against Louisiana-Monroe, the Tigers would be still be seeking their first win at 0-6; as it stands, they're 1-5, looking at a potentially winless season in SEC play, and already trying to figure out the cheapest way to fire coach Gene Chizik, less than two years removed from a national championship.
- LSU rallied in the fourth quarter of a standard-issue SEC slugfest to beat undefeated South Carolina, 23-21, salvaging their SEC and BCS championship hopes in the process after last week's uninspired 14-6 loss at Florida. Despite that blemish, the Tigers still have every tangible goal in front of them: with division frontrunners Texas A&M, Alabama and Mississippi State waiting over the next three games, the division, conference, and BCS titles are all well within reach. The main question at this point is whether quarterback Zach Mettenberger can turn the corner quickly enough to make the continued excellence of the defense pay off.
- Stanford tailback Stepfan Taylor may or may not have crossed the goal line on the final, decisive play of the Cardinal's overtime loss at Notre Dame –- hint: he did –- but as far as the official record is concerned, the question is moot: with a 20-13 overtime win, the Fighting Irish move to 6-0 for the first time since 2002, and extend their streak of holding opposing offenses out of the end zone to four games and counting. Prior to a defensive score for Stanford on Saturday, Notre Dame hadn't allowed a touchdown of any variety since Sept. 8, when Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush hit Antwan Edison for a 15-yard score. Over the ensuing month, Michigan State, Michigan, Miami, and now Stanford have all failed to hit paydirt against ND (officially, anyway), a drought spanning 16 full quarters and one overtime.
- Texas not only lost all sense of progress and dignity Saturday in a thorough, 63-21 beatdown at the hands of Oklahoma: the Longhorns also lost their best defensive player, Jackson Jeffcoat, to a season-ending injury, and may be without starting quarterback David Ash for the foreseeable future due to an injured wrist. After climbing into the top ten on the strength of a 4-0 start, punctuated with a dramatic, come-from-behind win at Oklahoma State, Texas is out of the polls altogether and suddenly wondering if the growing pains of the last two years are really behind it, after all. The next six weeks could be as crucial to Mack Brown's ongoing employment in Austin as any span in his 15-year tenure.
OFI TOP 25
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1. Florida (6-0). Slugfests against LSU and Texas A&M still holding as the best pair of wins by anyone, by far, but the Gator offense remains a work in progress heading into division-deciding dates with South Carolina and Georgia.
2. Alabama (6-0). 'Bama lost six defensive starters to the 2012 Draft, three in the first round, and currently leads the nation (again) in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense and turnover margin.
3. Kansas State (6-0). With the Sooners' romp over Texas, K-State's win at Oklahoma in September may be the most impressive of the season, and proves the Wildcats can win on the road ahead of another make-or-break trip to West Virginia.
4. Notre Dame (6-0). Someone will score a touchdown on the Irish eventually ... but BYU this Saturday is not the best bet.
5. Oregon (6-0). First real test of the season awaits Saturday at Arizona State.
6. Oregon State (5-0). Beavers lost their starting quarterback and scored more points on a stingy BYU defense (42) than they had in any other game this season. Prior to Saturday, the Cougars hadn't allowed an offensive touchdown in 13 consecutive quarters.
7. Ohio State (7-0). Buckeyes gave up 49 to Indiana, and still rank as the undisputed class of the Big Ten.
8. Oklahoma (4-1). Maybe they're at full speed after a slow start, but we've seen the Sooner bandwagon thrown off the trail by more manageable schedules than they're facing over the next seven weeks.
9. LSU (6-1). Quarterback is an ongoing issue, but the rest of the pieces clicked just in time to stave off irrelevance.
10. South Carolina (6-1). Gamecocks still have every goal in front of them, too, but no more margin of error this week at Florida.
11. Florida State (6-1). If nothing else, the Seminoles' halfhearted flop at N.C. State appears to have reminded them of the dangers of boredom in a stupefying conference.
12. Texas A&M (5-1). Let freshman sensation Johnny Manziel have his moment after big games against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Louisiana Tech, before he has to face LSU and Alabama.
13. USC (5-1). Trojans seem to be sleepwalking through the Pac-12's middle-class neighborhoods, but there is still a clear path back to the top of the polls if they reenact last year's November surge.
14. Texas Tech (5-1). Red Raiders may not last here long with road trips to TCU and Kansas State on deck, but for now, they've earned it.
15. West Virginia (5-1). Everyone knew the defense was a tinderbox, but nobody thought a Big 12 secondary could put handcuffs on Geno Smith.
16. Georgia (5-1). Bulldogs had the week off, timed perfectly to allow them to stew in the humiliation at South Carolina.
17. Mississippi State (6-0). Dream season lasts one more week, then comes the reality check in Tuscaloosa.
18. Louisville (6-0). Cardinals are the first of three consecutive Big East outfits that can emerge from the closed conference loop undefeated without giving anyone the slightest indication how good they actually are.
19. Cincinnati (5-0). If Bearcats handle their business this weekend at Toledo, their Friday night trip to Louisville on Oct. 26 will be appointment viewing for shut-ins.
20. Rutgers (6-0). Scarlet Knights rank 97th in total offense but lead the nation in turnover margin and kickoff returns, and rank No. 2 in rushing defense. In other words: this may be the most Rutgers team ever.
21. Arizona State (5-1). Sun Devils are winning big with the best defense in the conference, which will actually mean something if it's still true after Saturday's visit from Oregon.
22. Stanford (4-2). In two losses, the Cardinal defense has produced two touchdowns. The Cardinal offense has produced zero.
23. Iowa State (4-2). Cyclones only move down one spot with a loss to Kansas State, because a) they just beat TCU head-to-head, and b) all of a sudden competitive losses to Kansas State and Texas Tech don't look that bad.
24. TCU (5-1). After throwing three picks against ISU in his first start, freshman quarterback Trevone Boykin was turnover-free and terrific in a reassuring, 49-21 rout at Baylor.
25. Ohio (7-0). It says something about the other available options for this slot that an eight-overtime struggle against Akron wasn't enough to get the Bobcats bounced.
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In: Texas Tech, TCU. Out: Texas, Louisiana Tech.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
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1. Josh Dworaczyk, OL, LSU. The Tigers' patchwork line was physically dominated at Florida, and limped into Saturday's season-defining visit from South Carolina with three veteran starters -– future draft picks Chris Faulk, Alex Hurst, and Josh Williford -– all missing from the lineup. In their place, the reconfigured line featured a true freshman (Vadal Alexander), a redshirt freshman (Trai Turner) starting for the first time, and Dworaczyk, a sixth-year senior coming off a major knee injury that cost him the entire 2011 season. On top of that, Dworaczyk was being asked to play out of position at left tackle, opposite the Gamecocks' five-star edge-rushing freak, Jadeveon Clowney.
Instead of wilting in the face of another blue-chip front, though, LSU methodically ground the Gamecocks down, amassing a 14-minute advantage in time of possession en route to a must-have, come-from-behind win. For the game, Carolina was gashed for a season-worst 258 yards on the ground and failed to record a sack by a member of the front four for the first time this year; by the fourth quarter, the Tigers were opening gaping holes for freshman tailback Jeremy Hill, whose first significant action yielded more yards (124) than any LSU back has gained against an SEC defense since 2008. Hill's second touchdown, a 50-yard dagger with a little over five minutes to play, put the game on ice and the Tigers back in the thick of the SEC and BCS races.
2. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama. Mosley was the heart of the Crimson Death Star at Missouri, racking up a team-high 12 tackles to go with a sack and a fumble recovery in a typical skull-cracking performance by the 'Bama defense. Through six games, Mosley has been credited with 51 total tackles, nearly twice as many stops as anyone else on the team.
3. Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford. Murphy's quietly outstanding season continued Saturday in defeat, despite his presence on ten tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks at Notre Dame. Unfortunately, the Cardinal defense can only score so many points itself.
4. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan. Illinois' offense is an ongoing disaster area, and Ryan made the greatest contribution to the wreckage Saturday with 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and a forced fumble in a 45-0 debacle. All five of the Illini's losses this season have come by at least 17 points, four of them with fewer than 17 points on the board.
5. Cody Davis, S, Texas Tech. Davis had the busiest -- and best -- day in the Red Raider secondary, recording 13 solo tackles with a pair of passes broken up in the ambush of West Virginia. In 2011, Texas Tech finished 114th nationally in total defense and 113th against the pass. Midway through 2012, they lead the Big 12 on both counts.