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Defenseless: College Football’s defensive players need a boost

No defense is safe when Marcus Mariota and Oregon have the ball. But the Ducks aren't the only ones...
No defense is safe when Marcus Mariota and Oregon have the ball. But the Ducks aren't the only ones...
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62-51, 63-38, 52-49, 42-41, 59-38, 66-31, 49-37, 47-42, 51-44, 48-45.

Have we had enough of this yet? Or is this what we want college football to become – a real life video game?

Yes, big scoreboard numbers are not that new in college football. Because of the large number of teams and the huge gap between the power programs and the lesser ones, scores like 63-14 are not uncommon, especially early in a season when Powerhouse U is playing Directional Tech. But what IS new – and very unsettling to anyone who enjoys a hard fought, tightly contested game where every score could tip the balance – are contests were BOTH teams are lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine and defensive players are more like speed bumps that road blocks.

West Virginia’s ludicrous 70-63 win over Baylor early in the season (you have to wonder if the score will be that high when they meet on the basketball court in a few weeks) was dismissed as being a game between two spread offensive teams that didn’t care much about defense. But it was not an isolated incident. If you saw all or parts of the Oregon win over USC last weekend, you had to wonder if the defensive players for either of these highly ranked teams were even trying. It was like a sandlot game. USC coach Lane Kiffin had the gall to actually punt the ball at one point – and was rounding booed for doing so.

Imagine scoring 51 points in a game…and losing. It’s sort of mind boggling for those of us who grew up without Nintendo or EA Sports. The games we used to watch were considered high scoring if it was 31-28. Now that’s a halftime score.

No, it’s not every game. Boise State and BYU played a 7-6 game earlier this season. Ohio State beat Michigan State 16-13. The Big Ten has had some of those old school kind of games. But the same conference also produced a Ohio State 63-38 win over Nebraska, and a 52-49 Buckeye win over Indiana, so no league or conference is immune. It’s not every game, but it’s now a whole bunch of games. And the way it’s trending, there will be a whole lot more.

What will it take before something is done – in terms of rule changes or rule interpretations – to tilt the scales back toward the defense and a level playing field? These video game scores and statistics are actually skewing the performances of the teams and the players. It cheapens the value of a touchdown when a team can put up eight to 10 of them (and need every one to win) in a single game. It’s not real football, the way most of us know and love it.

It could help to tweak a couple of the rules. Spread, no huddle offenses are high risk, but high reward. You would not want to legislate that element out of the game. But there are a couple of things that could be done to help the defense. (Wow. What a concept. Rules changes to help the defense…)

To start with, change the ridiculous interpretation of the “targeting a defenseless player” rule. Absolutely players should NOT be able to lead with or tackle with their head/helmet. Not suggesting that. This is not to advocate any sort of roll back on efforts to protect players from concussions. But it’s gotten to the point that when a defensive player hits a receiver with his shoulder – just as he’s taught to do – and does NOT make contact with the offensive player’s head in any manner, that defender is still getting flagged for “targeting.” Isn’t that the tackler’s job, to tackle his “target?” How does a defensive back, running as hard as he can to try to prevent a pass completion, suddenly slam on the brakes and stop himself from hitting the guy – legally – that he was aiming at? The “targeting” rule is not protection, it’s over-reaction. Make that rule apply ONLY when helmet contact is involved. Otherwise, make receivers fair game again.

Also, change the interpretation of what constitutes pass interference. Making contact with a receiver and impeding his ability to make a play on the ball while it’s in the air is pass interference. Making NO contact with a receiver, but instead putting your arms up in the air and blocking his vision, even if you aren’t looking at the ball, is called pass defense. Why not allow “face guarding” minus physical contact? Why not allow all incidental contact by a defender, like when a DB has his left hand on a receiver’s back while he’s making a play on the ball with his right hand? Did the left hand impede the receiver? If he was touching the receiver and the other arm didn’t factor in, then let it go. It’s getting so defenders can’t breathe on a receiver anymore. You can almost guarantee yourself a first down by just throwing a “jump ball” to your tallest receiver.

You can’t stop progress, and offenses are progressing faster than defenses can keep up with. This is not a complaint about that. But if you love the game, you’d like to see it played with a little bit more balance. Helping out the beleaguered defensive players with some better rule interpretations would be a good start.


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