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Call it poetic justice. The day after his teleconference earlier this month was hijacked by a female blogger who called in to solicit his thoughts on, among other things, whether Lindsay Lohan might leave prison early to enter rehab, TCU coach Gary Patterson lamented his tongue-tied reply ("Umm ... no answer"). "I wish I'd been prepared for the question," said Patterson, "because I actually loved her in The Parent Trap."
It seems only fitting that a man who specializes in springing unpleasant surprises on opposing offenses should, every so often, be the victim of one himself.
If Patterson isn't the keenest defensive mind in college football, he's certainly in the top five. TCU led the nation in total defense last season for the fourth time in Patterson's nine-year tenure as top Frog. He's done it by running a scheme that is equal parts nasty, confusing, suffocating and ahead of its time.
While it wasn't designed with this goal in mind, Patterson's system, the 4-2-5, turned out to be an effective antidote to the various species of spread offenses that took root across the republic over the last decade. Most 4--3 teams send a linebacker to the sideline on obvious passing downs, replacing him with a fifth defensive back—the nickel. TCU's base defense is a nickel package. That extra DB (the 5 in the 4-2-5) is a kind of safety-linebacker hybrid, a talented tweener who is equally at ease covering a receiver or bringing the lumber in run support. Five defensive backs "allow you to get more speed on the field," says Patterson, "but they've got to be physical, got to be good tacklers."
While the Horned Frogs have been on the vanguard of this approach, plenty of defensive coordinators have been paying close attention, scouring recruiting lists and their own rosters for "hybrid" guys who give them the best chance to check the spread of the spread.
A peso for your thoughts, Carl Pelini. "The big thing for us," says the Nebraska defensive coordinator, "is finding guys who are physical enough to play in the box and who at the same time can step outside and match up on an inside receiver.
"Five years ago," he adds, "defense was all personnel-driven"—coaches frantically substituting to match offensive players on the field. "The more hybrid players you have on the field, the better you're able to match up by formation rather than by personnel."
One such hybrid is the Cornhuskers' hard-hitting Eric Hagg, a 6' 2", 210-pound senior with superb coverage skills. A nickelback for the past two seasons, Hagg will be an every-down player in Nebraska's new base defense, the so-called Peso, a nickel by any other name. It was Hagg who picked off Colt McCoy's second pass in last December's Big 12 title game—the first of three interceptions the Texas quarterback threw during a nightmarish outing in which he was sacked nine times and bludgeoned into near incoherence.
That game, a 13--12 Texas victory, also marked a sea change in college football. A year after Oklahoma set a Division I-A record by averaging 51.1 points a game, the supremacy of the hurry-up spread offense was officially at an end. The pendulum—as embodied by the clublike right arm of Nebraska tackle Ndamukong Suh—had begun swinging in the direction of the defense, as this look at SI's top four teams suggests. Alabama, Ohio State, Boise State and Texas all do defense a little differently, but the best teams all do it extremely well. And like a linebacker coming off the edge, this defensive uprising is certain to accelerate in 2010, as coaches continue to concoct schemes and personnel packages designed to dull what was once the cutting edge of offensive football.
Four of the five BCS bowls last season were won by teams which finished the year in the top 10 in total defense (No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 Florida, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 10 Iowa). The exception was the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., where Boise State (No. 14) beat TCU. The Broncos won that game, though, basically by out-Pattersoning Patterson.