MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — At his press conference last week designed to preview Alabama, Dana Holgorsen deceived the audience. He knew it and knew the onlookers wouldn’t realize until later.
There was a question about preparing for the Crimson Tide and however they might behave under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and perhaps also head coach Nick Saban. There was an answer that touched two topics.
“I think both us defensively and Alabama offensively are in a similar situation where it’s not a wholesale change,” he said, reminding the cameras, recorders and notepads he’d promoted Tony Gibson to replace departed defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.
“One of the reasons I wanted Tony to take over the defense was because he was with coach Patterson last year, and he was with coach Patterson three years ago. I can assure you that when coach Saban hired coach Kiffin, it wasn’t, ‘I want you to change the entire thing.’ ”
Good answer, but ultimately rubbish. An explanation follows, but let’s first understand the lengths to which WVU was and is still willing to go to preserve the misidentity of its defense. Hours after Holgorsen said that, and a day after Saban quizzically claimed WVU would use the “odd stack which they’ve had success with in the past,” Gibson threw up a similar, soldierly stiff arm.
He said WVU was an “odd front” defense that would play with three defensive linemen, but that “we’re multiple.”
“I’m telling you guys,” he told inquisitors, “you’ll get to see it in however many plays we’re out there. We’ll look like a 3-4, we’ll look like a 3-3-5, we’ll look like a 5-3.”
After seeing it for 92 plays inside the Georgia Dome, here’s the deal: WVU again has an odd stack 3-3-5 defense.
No more 3-4. No more “multiple” looks, at least not in the sense that suggests the Mountaineers are willing to change their buckskins and swap personnel to turn into a 3-4, 4-3, 4-4 or 5-3. Offenses might get those looks, but because of the way the 3-3-5 changes its alignment instead of its players.
WVU is using three defensive linemen — and “odd” front — and three linebackers — in a varying “stack” behind the linemen — with five defensive backs. One defensive back — the spur — is going to be around the line of scrimmage a lot and probably create the impression he’s a fourth linebacker or fourth defensive lineman. The other safety — the bandit — can do the same and make it look like WVU has four or five linemen or linebackers.
This is what the Mountaineers used with gradual success and eventually fantastic results from 2002-11. This is why Gibson was promoted. It’s why former WVU linebacker Anthony Leonard was hired as a graduate assistant who works with the linebackers. It’s what older players like linebackers Wes Tonkery and Nick Kwiatkoski have played before and why they’ve so far excelled. It’s why Karl Joseph moved from free safety to the more impactful bandit. It’s why coaches have asked K.J. Dillon to study tapes of spurs from years ago.
The past is WVU’s future, and in the past the Mountaineers did very well recruiting to the 3-3-5. While they’ve changed conferences, they haven’t changed their luck recruiting defensive linemen. The 3-3-5 is a workaround where high school safeties become college linebackers, linebackers become ends and ends become nose guards.
What else was the odd stack known for? It’s what you saw against Alabama. The Mountaineers had a hard time with the run — some of that was a linebacker or a safety getting exploited out of (a new) position — and they gave up big gains on third downs — and some of that was the result of missed blitzes.
But WVU’s linebackers rarely lined up in the same spot on successive plays and Tonkery, playing the key Sam position on the strong side, did a good job with leverage against the run, which was one reason why Kwiatkoski and Joseph had so many tackles. The defensive backs kept almost all of the passes in front of them and the defense bent (more than 500 yards) but didn’t break (four field goals, three in the red zone).
“I liked what I saw, and I loved the kids’ effort,” Gibson said, though without abandoning the creed that insists this remains an unspoken change.
The odd stack was also known to confuse opponents because it’s so nuanced, and WVU did scramble Alabama and spring a bunch of blitzers unblocked to the quarterback. None of them made the play, but that’s another story for another day.
The list of teams running the true odd stack is short and honestly might not have more than Arizona, where former WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel rejoined Rich Rodriguez, and WVU. The Mountaineers did play some 3-3-5 the past two years, but what Casteel and Gibson do is different. They were there for its creation and they don’t talk much about it. It causes problems because no one else runs it like they do.
The list of teams running the 3-4 is significantly longer, especially in the Big 12. As good as the odd stack was in the Big East, it’s probably better suited to succeed in the Big 12. It features and rewards athleticism and speed, hence the extra defensive back in place of a linebacker or defensive lineman. And you better have fast athletes to defend the pass in this conference or, well, you might look a lot like the Mountaineers did the past two years.