Big 12 defenses rising up, changing poor reputation

CLIFF BRUNT
West Virginia defensive lineman Darius Stills (56) reacts after making an interception against Kansas during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in Morgantown, W.Va. (William Wotring/The Dominion-Post via AP)

Kansas West Virginia Football

West Virginia defensive lineman Darius Stills (56) reacts after making an interception against Kansas during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in Morgantown, W.Va. (William Wotring/The Dominion-Post via AP)

Defenses are making a stand early in this Big 12 season.

The conference best known in recent years for high-scoring showdowns and crazy passing numbers now boasts some of the nation’s stingiest defenses. West Virginia leads the nation in total defense, allowing just 240.3 yards per game. Among the 77 Bowl Subdivision teams that have played so far this season, Oklahoma State ranks second nationally in scoring defense and sixth in total defense. West Virginia and Oklahoma State are tied for the national lead for fewest yards allowed per play and Baylor ranks fifth.

Though the Pac-12 and Big Ten have yet to play, those lofty positions in the national rankings are much different than what Big 12 observers are used to.

The biggest leap has come against the pass. Seven Big 12 teams have allowed fewer passing yards per game than they did at the same point in league play last season. This season, the conference has four of the top 16 teams nationally in fewest passing yards allowed per game and three of the top 11 in pass efficiency defense.

“To sit here and say there’s no defense and it’s just a passing league -- I sort of block that stuff out,” Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy said. “It doesn’t mean much to me because I think the defensive play is really hard in this league and I give respect to the d-coordinators across the league. They do a good job scheming up all the offenses. It goes both ways.”

The Big 12 went through a run of excellent quarterback play in recent years. Patrick Mahomes lit it up at Texas Tech before becoming an NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion for the Kansas City Chiefs. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, both Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall draft picks, led the Sooners to College Football Playoff appearances.

Those are just a few of the prolific signal callers the league has featured. There still are plenty of good quarterbacks in the Big 12 -- they’re just not quite at the same level as in recent years.

“You look at the No. 1 draft picks and the high rankings in passing offense and things like that, and it was really difficult to play defense in this league due to offensive skill, and most importantly, at the quarterback position,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said. “And I think it’s been more pro offense than it’s been negative defense.”

Big 12 defenses have been adjusting, too. Programs are recruiting more versatile personnel and many have switched coordinators in recent years.

What has resulted is games like Oklahoma State's 27-13 win over West Virginia in which neither team gained more than 360 yards. And Kansas State's 21-14 victory over TCU where 289 yards of offense were enough for the Wildcats to pull off the win.

“Defenses have seen what’s happened in this league for the last eight years and they’ve rallied and done some things differently, particularly playing coverage guys deeper than they did four or five years ago,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.

Playing deeper and having more players in coverage has put more responsibility on defensive linemen to pressure the quarterback. TCU coach Gary Patterson said his team isn’t getting as much pressure as he’d like, but it’s a byproduct of the way the game has changed.

“I’m not happy with it," he said. “It’s something we want to be a lot better at, but I’m not unsatisfied. But if you want to be one of the best defenses in the nation, you’ve got to make people fear that you can come and get the quarterback with a three- or four-man rush.”

The league still goes back to its old ways sometimes. Texas has been in two high-scoring thrillers — a 63-56 overtime win against Texas Tech and a 53-45 loss to Oklahoma. But other conferences, such as the SEC, are starting to see the kinds of offensive explosions once reserved for the Big 12. Alabama defeated Ole Miss 63-48 earlier this month as the teams combined for an SEC-record 1,370 yards.

“People have migrated in those conferences in running what the country would call Big 12-style offenses now in other conferences, and those numbers are getting run up,” Gundy said.

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AP Sports Writers Eric Olson and Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report.

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