Forde-Yard Dash: Is defense making a comeback?

Pat Forde

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (emotional support animals available at New Mexico State and Rice, the last two winless teams in the FBS ranks):

[More Dash: Undefeated teams | Week 7 picks | What happened to these guys?]



As noted prior to the national championship game last year, proficient and efficient passing offenses have become the coin of the realm in college football. The better you throw, the more you win. That has been the trend.

But here is an important counter-programming note, courtesy of 2019: Many of the top teams are getting it done with defense. Key stat: All of the top 19 teams in scoring defense nationally have zero or one loss. On the flip side, four of the top 19 in scoring offense have at least two losses.

Of the 16 remaining unbeatens, the split is 50-50 in terms of whether they rank higher nationally in scoring offense or scoring defense. It’s worth noting that all three Big Ten unbeatens are better nationally on defense than offense (albeit barely): Wisconsin is first in scoring defense and 11th in scoring offense; Penn State is second and fifth; Ohio State is tied for third and fourth. The SEC is split: The West Division unbeatens are better at scoring than making stops (LSU is 1st in scoring offense and tied for 29th in scoring D, while Alabama is 3rd/13th); the East Division unbeatens are the opposite (Florida is fifth in scoring defense and 53rd in scoring offense, while Georgia is 7th/12th).

Wisconsin Badgers safety Collin Wilder (18) tackles Michigan Wolverines tight end Sean McKeon (84) during the third quarter on Sept. 21. (Getty)
Wisconsin Badgers safety Collin Wilder (18) tackles Michigan Wolverines tight end Sean McKeon (84) during the third quarter on Sept. 21. (Getty)

Given the good work on that side of the ball, let’s salute six defensive coordinators doing their best work yet for unbeaten teams:

Jim Leonhard (31), Wisconsin. He’s been good for a lot of years, but suffered a rare disappointing year in 2018 thanks largely to injuries. Now the current unit has taken it to another level. The Badgers lead the nation in scoring defense, total defense, yards allowed per play, pass efficiency defense, passing yards allowed and opponent third-down conversions. They’re second in rushing defense. They have three shutouts in five games, which hasn’t happened since 2001 (Virginia Tech). They have scored three defensive touchdowns and allowed four. Wisconsin still has not allowed a first-half touchdown this season, and has not trailed at any point.

Brent Pry (32), Penn State. He’s been with James Franklin since the Vanderbilt days, and his current group seems to be getting better weekly. The Nittany Lions have held every opponent to its season-low point total, and haven’t given up a second-half point in more than a month.

Jeff Hafley (33), Ohio State. He arrived from the NFL, but has plenty of college experience as well. The Buckeyes have taken the simple fundamentals of defensive football — tackling and being in the right place on assignments — and applied them to a unit that gained valuable but occasionally painful experience last season. The 2019 Buckeyes have been a powerful disruptive force at the line of scrimmage, leading the nation in sacks (28) and tackles for loss (61). With Chase Young up front and Jeffery Okudah in the secondary, Ohio State might have both the best rush end and cover corner in the nation.

Lyle Hemphill (34), Wake Forest. Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson has shown a knack for finding quality coaches from his old neck of the woods in the Northeast. He gave Mike Elko his first Division I job at Bowling Green, and Elko is now a $2 million-a-year coordinator at Texas A&M. Next in that pipeline is Hemphill, a 39-year-old in his second season at Wake after six at FCS Stony Brook. Wake’s bend-but-don’t-break defense is on pace to allow its fewest points per game in more than a decade.

Phil Snow (35), Baylor. He’s 63 years old and he’s been around — high school, junior college, FCS, Pac-12, NFL, MAC. One of the smartest things Matt Rhule has done as a head coach was to hire Snow as his DC at Temple, after working under Snow at UCLA at the beginning of the century. Counter-programming the wide-open Big 12, Baylor now leads the league in scoring defense, yards allowed per play and yards allowed per rush, while ranking second in pass efficiency defense. Tougher offensive challenges are coming, but the Bears might be up for it.

Jeff Schmedding (36), Boise State. The Broncos gave up 31 points in the first half of the season opener to Florida State, then shut out the Seminoles the rest of the way. Since then, they have allowed just 49 points in four games. Schmedding, who arrived in Boise after a long stint at FCS Eastern Washington, has the Broncos creating disruptions up front and allowing just 117 passing yards per game.


Purdue (37) has run the ball 133 times this season. Not one of those running plays has gained 20 yards. The Boilermakers are one of only two FBS teams in the nation not to have broken at least one run of 20 yards in 2019. (Akron is the other.) With injuries and efficiency issues at quarterback, it would certainly help if the Boilermakers could create some offensive balance with the running game — but that hasn’t happened. And it’s a big reason why they are 1-5.


Scott Satterfield (38), Louisville. In five games as coach of the Cardinals, Satterfield has won more games (three) and more ACC games (one) than Bobby Petrino did all last season. Louisville scored 41 points against Boston College on Saturday — its highest point total since Lamar Jackson was in uniform — and is averaging 32.4 points per game, up 13 points from last year. That’s despite having to mix-and-match three different QBs due to injuries. Satterfield started the season with 2018 holdover starter Jawon Pass, then went to Micale Cunningham, and against Boston College won the game behind true freshman Evan Conley (140 yards and a touchdown in after replacing injured Cunningham). The man knows what he’s doing.


Derek Mason (39), Vanderbilt. Every July, Mason charismatically makes the case that the Commodores are going to be an improved contender in the SEC. Then the season starts, and the follow-through isn’t there. The sixth-year coach hasn’t had a winning season yet, and this doesn’t look like it will be one, either — Vandy is 1-4, with every loss by at least 18 points. That includes losses to Purdue and Ole Miss, two teams the Commodores should be competing with on relatively even terms. The only win is a six-pointer over Northern Illinois.


The Dash ate nowhere of note this past week, but an emergency Sierra Nevada sampler pack did arrive at the manse from a kind and thoughtful friend. A recommendation from the new shipment: 3 Weight Session IPA (40), lighter than the standard Sierra Nevada ales but still packing customary flavor. As the brewery’s advertising says, “pairs well with a fly rod.” Give it a try and thank The Dash later.

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