Don’t expect Monte Kiffin to sleep very much from about Oct. 21-Nov. 10. The USC defensive coordinator doesn’t get a lot of rest during the season to begin with, but the opponents the Trojans will face during that specific three-game stretch could lead to some particularly long nights.
USC begins with a visit to Arizona on Oct. 27, where new coach Rich Rodriguez has installed his spread attack that features option principles, screen passes from every direction and a red-alert pace designed to leave defenders gasping. Seven days later, the Trojans return home to face Oregon’s high-speed attack that put up 522.8 yards and 46.1 points per game in 2011, and then they welcome Arizona State and Todd Graham, who prefers an entirely different version of the spread-’em-out scheme that can pound teams on the ground or strafe them through the air.
Two games — against bitter rivals UCLA and Notre Dame — remain after that, but the tripleheader of offensive firepower will test every bit of the experience Kiffin has collected during 46 seasons in college and the NFL.
“I think this conference has really got some good offensive coaches in it,” Kiffin says. “And it’s not getting any easier with the new coaches who have made their names with offense.”
The additions of Rodriguez and Graham, along with pass-happy Mike Leach at Washington State, and to a lesser extent Jim Mora in Westwood, have turned the Pac-12 Conference into a weekly nightmare for Kiffin and his brethren. The league was always somewhat wide open, but it is now even faster and looser. The new guys make it almost easy to forget how dangerous the Ducks are or what Stanford and USC can do with their pro-style attacks or what Cal’s Jeff Tedford is capable of with his West Coast scheme.
“You’ve got a bunch of new faces that will change the complexion of things a little,” Leach says. “It’s going to be exciting. There’s a lot of diversity in the conference geographically and in the nature of the offenses.”
The three schools that hired offensive-minded bosses (UCLA’s Mora has coached on the other side of the ball throughout his career) are all looking for improvement on the field but also must generate fan interest. As much as nasty defense can create success — Alabama’s two national titles in the past three seasons attest to that — points produce excitement.
Washington State may not reach a bowl game this year, but a new energy has come to Pullman, thanks to Leach and his offense. They’re trying to get $300 million in funding for a stadium overhaul in Tempe, and that’s a lot easier to find when a new coach and his exciting attack energize the faithful. And at Arizona, the only Pac-12 team other than newbies Colorado and Utah not to reach the Rose Bowl, Rodriguez brings a reason to believe.
“I think this is what people want,” Graham says. “I was a high school coach for a decade, and we ran an offense that was always no-huddle and a fast-paced system. I realized people want you to score points, rather than play 7–3 games. People are fickle. They want explosive plays.”
They should see that from the Sun Devils with Graham in charge. Two of his Tulsa teams (2007, ’08) led the nation in total offense, and his 2010 edition was fifth. Graham’s departure from Pittsburgh after just one season at the helm infuriated the Panthers fan base, but he has received nothing but love from the ASU community, which is hoping for the type of consistency it didn’t see under former coach Dennis Erickson.
Rodriguez is certainly known for his ability to build productive offenses. His three Michigan teams may not have stopped many people, but the 2010 Wolverines were eighth nationally in total yards. He wants to occupy rival defenses from sideline-to-sideline and force them to tackle in space. If his quarterback is better at running, Rodriguez will keep it on the ground. If the quarterback throws well, Rodriguez will open things up. That diversity makes life particularly hard for rival defensive coaches.
“We can feature things one way or another, and that gives us more options,” Rodriguez says. “When you go into a game, you only have three or four days to prepare, so having different things to deal with in a week’s time makes it harder to get it done in three or four days against a scout team at game speed.”
Imagine what it will be like for Oregon’s staff this September when it must transition from Arizona to Washington State on back-to-back Saturdays. While at Texas Tech, Leach was able to build a national powerhouse with a passing attack that routinely produced quarterbacks who threw for 5,000 yards a year. It may take a couple years for Leach to get things going like that at Wazzu, but even the early incarnations are likely to cause problems for opponents.
“We want to attack the whole field and be decisive,” Leach says. “That comes from hours of repetition and the ability to put the ball in everybody’s hands.”
So, what is a defensive coach to do in a potent conference that has become even more incendiary through the hiring of these offensive savants? Will we see defenders “cramping” in record numbers and falling to the turf in attempts to stop the clock? Or, will coordinators like Kiffin simply surrender and tell their offensive counterparts to outscore rivals? Neither is likely. Instead, expect the league to undergo a subtle philosophical change in terms of personnel.
“We need speed,” Kiffin says. “There is so much speed on the outside that you need linebackers that were former safeties in high school. And they have to tackle. We have always talked about tackling, but now we have to do it in the open field.
“A team may line up in trips to one side and throw it to the other, where it’s one-on-one.”
Even with faster players along the back seven, it’s still tough for defenses to get the preparation they need. At places like USC and Stanford, the defenders spend spring and summer working against pro sets. When games begin, they get a few days of work against scout teams that can’t possibly replicate the pace or talent of the high-powered opposition. That’s what coaches like Rodriguez are counting on. Meanwhile, Kiffin and his brethren have to be careful not to change too many things week-to-week, or their players will have no chance to keep up.
“Sometimes, you try to stop everything, and you can’t do it,” Kiffin says.
Sleep tight, coach.
This article appeared in Athlon's 2012 Pac-12 Preview Annual.
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