MORGANTOWN — For as long as he’s been coaching the odd stack — the clever 3-3-5 alignment that’s become West Virginia’s defensive identity on separate occasions that bookend two defensive coordinators who tried something different — Tony Gibson has done what he can to stay ahead of the opposition.
Some of those efforts are to be expected. Gibson, entering his third season as WVU’s defensive coordinator, will add to and adapt the defense so he can handle opposing offenses better. He’s personalized the system to meet his own personality and philosophies.
But other strategies are far more devious and no less deceptive.
During the offseason before his first season in charge of the defense, at some point between WVU’s loss to Iowa State to end the 2013 season and the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Alabama to begin the 2014 season, Gibson spoke at a coaching clinic.
The topic was defense, and it’s safe to assume a few folks were eager to learn about a defense that hadn’t been discussed too often in settings like that after Gibson and former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel were on the staff that helped install it here 14 years ago.
Gibson instead discussed a varying defense that could be a 3-4 or a 4-3. The legend goes that he hardly even mentioned the odd stack, except that isn’t a legend at all. In June, Gibson said it was the truth.
“We held onto it here for as long as we could,” he said.
In the preseason that led up to the Alabama game in Atlanta, Gibson went out of his way to avoid discussing the 3-3-5. He and his head coach, Dana Holgorsen, would stiff-arm suggestions they were going back to what once worked so well and what was apparently needed after both Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson tried something different when they were in charge of the defense.
Last offseason, Gibson relented, going quite a bit out of character and speaking openly about the 3-3-5. He’d even bring along assistant coaches and a graduate assistant to at least one clinic, where the Mountaineers were happy enough to share what they were willing to share.
And now, as the 2016 season begins with Gibson staring at a depth chart that shows a need for eight new starters, there are whispers his efforts through the years could be for naught and that offenses are on his heels.
In June, ESPN Insider used quotes from anonymous Big 12 coaches to provide a candid conference preview. One head coach had concerns about the future of the 3-3-5.
“Their system was an advantage, but more people are doing similar things,” the coach said. “A few years ago, we’d see that look maybe 20 to 30 percent of the time. This year, we’ll probably see it 70 percent of the time.”
Gibson welcomes more of those confident dismissals, but he also completely disagrees.
“Here’s the good thing about that,” he said. “It was us and Arizona running it. Arizona — Jeff’s no longer there. We were the only two Power 5 schools who were doing it, and we’re never going to keep running the same things we always run. We’ll always tweak our stuff.”
There are two theories skeptics use to suggest people will one day solve the 3-3-5. The first is obvious, and it asks a simple and valid question: How long can a scheme remain unique?
If an opponent sees the defense season after season — studies it on film, prepares for it in practice, executes against it in a game and then reviews the film afterward — it should get used to what’s supposed to be unusual.
But ask Gary Patterson that same question and he’d say there’s no expiration date. Patterson is the TCU head coach, and he’s used a 4-2-5 through the years.
“We’re very multiple, but it’s not that you have to change,” he said. “We’ve been No. 1 in the nation five times in total defense, and we did it a different way for every one of them. But we’ve taught all the same schemes.”
The 4-2-5, like the 3-3-5, has a traditional front. The Horned Frogs use a four-player defensive line. The Mountaineers use three. But TCU, like WVU, includes a variable that allows for flexibility and constant adaptations.
“Some years you’re just a better zone team and you can rush them,” he said. “Some years we’re a better zone blitz team. Some years we’ve been a better man blitz team. It really comes down to the personality and what you need to stop within the people you play.
“But I think that’s one of the advantages of playing a five-defensive back system, whether it’s a 3-3 or a 4-2. You can be a lot more multiple.”
What the Mountaineers do with the fifth defensive back — the component that differentiates them and TCU and a few others from 3-4 and 4-3 defenses — is what confounds opponents. That player can behave like a linebacker or a defensive back. He can blitz the passer or cover a receiver. He can attack the run or read a passing pattern. He allows the 3-3-5 to take on different looks.
Why is that important for the Mountaineers? The answer has to do with their objection to the second point doubters raise against the continued success of the 3-3-5.
Those people, including the anonymous Big 12 coach, believe offenses see the defense enough within a season now that they can prepare for and anticipate the Mountaineers like never before.
It’s true that more teams use the 3-3-5, but many do so as a package for a particular offense, formation or situation. The Mountaineers use it on every snap, and they incorporate consistent confusion.
“There are only so many things a four-down front can do. There are only so many things a three-down front can do,” Gibson said. “What I like about what we do is we do so many different things and we never let you know what we’re doing.”
There are exceptions, but WVU typically shows an offense a Cover 3 defense before the snap. Among the two cornerbacks and three safeties, three of those five players will drop back into coverage on a play. In a traditional defense, there are only four defensive backs and four three-player combinations for an offense to consider.
When the ball is snapped against WVU, the three defensive backs do the job they were assigned, but the 10 possible three-player combinations mean that can happen anywhere across the field.
The greatest trick, though, can be within that Cover 3 look. Gibson could show that and then play Cover 1 or Cover 0 and have just one safety or no safeties drop back into coverage. That means he’s sending pressure, and there’s only one guarantee associated with his blitz package.
“Everyone on defense there’s a blitz for except the field corner,” Gibson said, noting the field corner, who plays on the wide side of the field, has too much ground to cover to be an effective blitzer. “Everyone else, you can see them coming at one point or another.”
What distinguishes Gibson’s 3-3-5 from Casteel’s at WVU and from the others around the country is the blitzing. His pressures opponents because he wants his defense to dictate the direction of the game. Yet WVU doesn’t ask its defensive linemen to do a lot with the pass rush, and the defense usually isn’t near the top of the conference, never mind the nation, in sacks.
That doesn’t meant the 3-3-5 isn’t successful.
“People know what we’re doing, but I bet you 30 percent of the third-down stops we get when we’re good is on quick throws when they throw it deep too far, when they throw it out of bounds or throw it short and we get off the field,” he said. “That’s a sack for us. You’re affecting the quarterback. He’s seeing it.”
That’s the greatest example of how Gibson chooses to views certain stats, but there are others. He won’t allow his defense to be defined by the yards it allows per game. He instead knows points matter most and circles three factors that should keep opponents from scoring. He wants to get three-and-outs, third-down stops and turnovers, all so WVU’s offense can have more possessions.
Even that can be narrowed down, though. Gibson believes games are decided on third downs. He knows the way his defense is structured with the disguised coverages and the unpredictable blitzes gives his players greater odds to win on that down.
WVU allowed opponents to convert 31.6 percent of their third downs in 2014 and 32.3 percent last season, which ranked Nos. 8 and 13 nationally. In Gibson’s 26 games as the defensive coordinator, only Alabama, the first opponent, has converted more than half its attempts. Eighteen teams — nine in both seasons — converted one-third or fewer of their attempts.
If a game is to be decided by a series of one-play scenarios, Gibson doesn’t think anyone will catch up to what the 3-3-5 presents.
“We’re built for third down with what we do and how we do it,” he said. “It’s important to us, and we really work at it, because we want to be really good on third down.”