BLUM: A defense of Defense

The college football viewing public needs an intervention. Grab a seat America, let’s have a chat. You see, as soon as the Halloween decorations start to go up across this great country of ours the narrative will emerge that there is no defense being played in the Big 12. It is as consistent as chaos surrounding a UFC fight. There actually is defense being played in the Big 12 and two of the best defenses in the country will get together in Ames on Saturday night, even if the actual score doesn’t reflect it.

Our good friend and Cyclone Fanatic contributor Kirk Haaland has been fighting this battle for what seems like a decade. Points and yards allowed are not the end-all, be-all of measuring good defense. Even as recently as five years ago, when someone used the phrase “points per possession” they were met with an instantaneous, “Okay, nerd.”

But America, I trust you with your ability to engage in diplomatic, civil discourse, so highlighted in Facebook comment sections, we can move beyond points and yards and reach a higher level of thinking.

Generally, teams in the Big 12, have more possessions, run more plays and thus have more opportunities to put up points. Saturday’s Iowa State-Oklahoma State is a good example of this. Let’s play, “Choose the best defensive performance.”

Team A: 17 points allowed, 404 yards allowed, 3 turnovers forced

Team B: 42 points allowed, 415 yards allowed, 2 turnovers forced

The answer is pretty obvious, right? Not so simple. Team A was Wisconsin’s September win against Iowa in a game heralded as a classic Big Ten slugfest. The tenacity! The hitting! The defense!  But Iowa accumulated those numbers on just 54 plays and eight drives. The yards per play for Iowa amounted to 7.48 and the points per possession was 2.13.

Team B is Iowa State’s Saturday win against Oklahoma State. Oklahoma State had 16 drives (or double that of Iowa’s) and ran 76 plays, which amounts to 5.46 yards per play and 2.6 points per possession. Analytically, Iowa State’s performance was similar to Wisconsin’s, although you’d never know from just looking at the score and the whole, “Wow, there is no defense in the Big 12.”

But if you dive in closer you will see Iowa State’s defense was almost as impressive as Brock Purdy’s day on Saturday. In the 16 Oklahoma State drives, the Cowboys were held to 10 yards or fewer on 10 of those drives. And more amazingly, in the 76 Oklahoma State plays, Iowa State had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks. That is a negative yardage play on one of every five Cowboy plays and a sack in one of every 10.8 plays, truly incredible numbers.

The Cyclones set a school record for most tackles for loss with those 16. Iowa State also tied a team record for sacks in a game with seven set against Baylor in 1997 and Indiana State in 1986.

As Chris Williams highlighted this week, Jon Heacock knew if Oklahoma State had time to pick apart Iowa State, they would. So the scheme changed to a much more aggressive style and Iowa State was able to control that side of the ball for the majority of the game. Something you’d have to actually observe to realize and not just look at the final 42 point total.

But generalities are too often fact these days. In all actuality, half of the Big 12’s teams are in the top 50 in the nation in yards per play allowed, the same percentage as the Big Ten and the SEC.

Through five games, Iowa State is 46th in points per game allowed, but 30th in yards per play with games against elite offenses Oklahoma and Oklahoma State included. Currently, Iowa State is better in yards per play allowed than Ohio State, Wisconsin, Stanford and LSU. And the Cyclones don’t even get Rutgers on the schedule.

Iowa State’s Saturday opponent West Virginia has also been maligned by the “BIG 12 NO DEFENSE” conversation, but the Mountaineers are currently 25th in the country in yards per play allowed and analytically one of the most improved defenses in the country.

It all sets up for an awesome showdown under the lights on Saturday night as Iowa State looks to knock off a top ten team for the third time in two years.

Two great defenses will be on the field, the scoreboard just might not show it.