The Times West Virginian

August 24, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Dominating defense never old-fashioned

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Perhaps it’s simply generational confusion, which for whatever reason seems far more palatable than calling it a generation gap, but the way West Virginia University is approaching defense scares the bejeezus out of me.

Certainly I am a relic from another era, but at least it was an era of proven greatness built on solid thinking, most of it coming down to in the sport of football that a team is as good as its defense.

That thinking, however, has gone the way of high-topped football shoes and drop-kicks.

Modern football, which may best be practiced right here at WVU, is a high-tempo, fast-paced, spread-’em-out game where offense is king and defense is … well, what is defense?

That becomes a rather pressing issue as WVU enters the Big 12

We are moved to look into this after viewing an article by Jed Drenning, a one-time quarterback for Rich Rodriguez when he was considered the Dana Holgorsen of football, running his own aerial circus at Glenville State.

Drenning’s website is known as The Signal Caller, and it is as well-written and insightful a website on Mountaineer football as you will find anywhere.

The recent article on WVU’s new defense and its philosophies was, to be honest, frightening to someone who was weaned on the likes of Sam Huff and Dick Butkus, The Monsters of the Midway or the Doomsday Defense.

The article indicates the goal of the West Virginia defense being to cause turnovers, almost exclusively.

Turnovers are great, no doubt, but let us suggest that you can’t count on them happening or on causing them because just as hard as your defense works to cause them, the offense works on avoiding them.

What you don’t hear in the discussion of WVU’s new 3-4 defense is anything about creating three-and-outs, about setting up third-and-long situations, no talk about dominating on that side of the ball.

In fact, the conclusion in Drenning’s article that comes from new defensive coordinator Joe DeForest is this:

“At the end of the game, as long as we have more points than they do – then we’ve done our job,” DeForest said. “We may win ugly at times, but ultimately if you come out on top that means you made a stop to win the game.”

What the hell do you think Bear Bryant would say about that?

All I know about Bear Bryant is what was pointed out by Drenning in his article, and that is before the 1963 Sugar Bowl Bryant said of his defense: “They play like it’s a sin to give up a point.”

And that’s how a defense should think.

True, winning is the ultimate goal on both offense and defense, but to think in any way that you should be pleased with a defensive performance in a 44-41 shootout is coming from the wrong direction.

 See, it was a fluke that the two best defensive teams in the country – Alabama and Louisiana State — met for the national championship last year.

Oh, Drenning suggests that it was a fluke in the article. He notes West Virginia gained 463 passing yards on LSU last season, which it did, but they produced only 21 points … yes, in part because of four turnovers, but I don’t think anyone would argue that the best defensive team won that game.

Now it’s true thinking has to change some, for the way football is played today the offense is ahead of the defense, just as it was back in the early days of the wishbone.

As co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson noted, the standards are different now.

“You can’t look at the same things that you did in the past – low yardage totals, low point totals, things like that. Instead we now look at things like takeaways, sacks, tackles for loss and three-and-outs.”

Ah, finally some recognition for three-and-outs, for actually making plays that stop the offense. See, that has to be the ultimate goal, turnovers and takeaways being part of the equation, but certainly not being the focal point of the defense.

The defense’s job is not simply to see that the offense scores more points, but is instead to create a flow in the game that favors the offense, changes field position either by turnovers or forcing punts, that demoralizes an opponent by its dominance and finally keeps the ball out of the end zone … not just enough to allow the team to win.

A dominating defense, that creates an aura of toughness and superiority, will never become old-fashioned in football and is far more consistent and reliable than an offense that feels it has to outscore every opponent to win.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.