Defense sees all-around improvement in new season
Every day before practice, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando writes “STOP THE RUN. GET THE BALL.” on a whiteboard.
It did not take long before the message sunk in and the players started abiding it.
“We pride ourselves on stopping the run and just being a physical defensive team,” Sophomore defensive back Garrett Davis said.
Up the ante
Although the Cougars defense hasn’t been able to take the ball away at a rate comparable to last year, it has been able to stop the run more effectively. Through five games, the Cougars possess the No. 1 rush defense in the country.
It started against the University of Oklahoma Sooners, who were a top-25 rushing offense from last year. Going into the game against the Cougars, the Sooners featured a dynamic running back tandem in redshirt sophomore Joe Mixon and junior Samaje Perine.
During the game, the two backs were held to just 71 yards, which set the tone for the rest of the season for the Cougars.
The Cougars have only allowed 140 yards on 103 carries in the four games since playing the Sooners. They are also allowing 11 fewer yards per game than the Air Force Academy, who is the second-ranked rushing defense.
A big change for the Cougars is the fact that they have played the majority of their defensive snaps in the nickel package instead of the more traditional 3-4 defensive scheme this season. The nickel replaces one of the outside linebackers in a 3-4 with a defensive back, which typically allows for more flexibility in coverage.
Head coach Tom Herman said the change was to get the team’s best players on the field instead of worrying about trying to get certain players to fit a specific scheme.
Senior cornerback Brandon Wilson is usually the nickel corner when the Cougars line up in the package. Since he’s injured, however, Davis has filled in at the position.
“Garrett Davis — or had it been Brandon Wilson — they’re perfectly capable of playing that field outside linebacker spot, holding the point on perimeter runs, sticking their nose in there and they’re great at blitzing,” Herman said.
In the previous game against the University of Connecticut Huskies, the Cougars started in the nickel and Davis benefited because it allowed him to blitz and get after the opponent’s quarterback.
He led the Cougars with 2.5 tackles for loss and also added one sack.
No laziness here
While the majority of their snaps have been run in the nickel, the Cougars’ defense starts games according to how the opposing offense is lined up. There are times, like in the University of Cincinnati Bearcats game, where Wilson or Davis will be asked to sit out until substitutions are made.
Orlando said it is important to have veterans like Wilson and Davis who don’t care if they get the start as long as it benefits the team.
Since the Cougars have been so great at stopping the run, it has actually made them a better team in pass coverage, too.
“You win defensive series on first and second down,” Davis said. “If you stop the run, they become one-dimensional and they start throwing the ball.”
When a team becomes limited with what they can do offensively, it makes it easier for a defensive coordinator to call plays because it narrows down the guesswork.
Heading into the season, the Cougars had a questionable secondary after the departure of several of their starters from last year. Despite the inexperience, the team has given up 66 fewer yards through the air compared to the previous season.
Orlando said that the improvement actually means nothing to him — the defense just needs to keep opposing teams out of the end zone.
“You can give up 400 yards and give up 10 points, and to me, it’s all about points,” Orlando said. “I care about points and strictly points.”
The defense has done just that. After giving up 20.7 points per game last year, the Cougars are allowing just 11.2 points per game and recorded their second shutout during the Orlando era against Lamar University.
While improvements are visible all across the board statistically, Herman credited the culture and effort for the progress.
“If you take the field for the University of Houston, you better be out there with your hair on fire, running full speed down the football,” Herman said. “There’s no such thing as a lazy step in this program.”