When Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes arrived from Texas Tech three years ago, he boned up on defensive films of the Wildcats' Pac-10 rivals. What Dykes saw opened his eyes. Tackling? In the Pac-10?
TUCSON — When Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes arrived from Texas Tech three years ago, he boned up on defensive films of the Wildcats' Pac-10 rivals.
What Dykes saw opened his eyes.
Tackling? In the Pac-10?
"It was surprising," Dykes said in an interview this week. "I expected it to be what the Big 12 is now — spread offenses and throwing it all around and nobody playing defense. But there's really been a shift. I think that the Pac-10 is a completely different league than the perceptions."
The Pac-10's flag-football reputation may have been forged in the 1970s and 1980s, when the league won 16 of 20 Rose Bowls against an assortment of Big Ten plowhorses. Every New Year's Day, it seemed, the Pac-10's pretty-boy quarterbacks would steal the show in Pasadena.
Few fans gave much thought to defense, even though the Pac-10 representatives gave up a total of 32 points in three Rose Bowls from 1970-72 and a total of 23 in three games from 1982-84.
"With our history kind of being basketball on grass and all the great quarterbacks and stuff, people tend to look at the Pac-10 like that," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, a former Alabama defensive back. "The defenses throughout (the league) are better and physical. We've become different than our history."
Indeed, more Pac-10 teams are emphasizing defense. When the Pac-10 swept its five bowls last winter, its teams limited every opponent below their regular-season scoring average.
More evidence came last weekend, when UCLA beat Tennessee 19-15 and USC edged Ohio State 18-15.
In Knoxville, the Bruins survived on a day they mustered but 186 yards on offense. For UCLA, the highlight of an ugly game came when the Bruins stuffed Tennessee tailback Montario Hardesty on fourth down near the goal line.
"Our defense is the cornerstone of our team right now," said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, whose defense will have to carry the load while the team searches for a replacement for injured quarterback Kevin Prince.
In Columbus, most of the postgame attention centered on USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley and the Trojans' long touchdown drive in the waning minutes. But the defense kept USC in the game while Barkley and the offense did almost nothing for 55 minutes; the Trojans' first touchdown came after linebacker Chris Galippo picked off a pass and returned it to the Buckeyes 2.
Both wins were the sort of gritty, grass-stained triumphs people don't expect from Pac-10 teams — except Pac-10 coaches.
"I think, Pac-10 defenses are a lot more physical than people think," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "I think it shows up when we go out of conference, no doubt about it."
A week ago, Arizona gave up only a field goal to Central Michigan and quarterback Dan LeFevour, the Mid-American Conference's all-time total offense leader. Seven days later, LeFevour and the Chippewas hung 29 points on Michigan State.
"The games that I've watched over the last two weeks, the league as a whole is a lot faster on defense," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said.
Not every Pac-10 defense can make that claim.
Washington State has allowed 1,107 total yards in two losses; only Western Kentucky and San Jose State have given up more among the 120 major college teams.
After Stanford gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 24-17 loss at Wake Forest, Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh said, "We've got to do a better job of running to the ball, getting more bodies and people to the football."
If the Cougars and Cardinal hope to contend for Pac-10 titles, they need to shore up their defenses.
How have other Pac-10 defenses improved?
Coaches say the units are stocked with better, faster players such as UCLA safety Rahim Moore, who has five interceptions, and Arizona State linebacker Mike Nixon, who picked off three passes against overmatched Idaho State.
And coaches tend to mimic success. USC, led by former Pacific free safety Pete Carroll, has won seven straight Pac-10 titles by stressing defense — although it's helped to have Heisman Trophy winners such as Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush on offense.
USC led the nation in scoring defense last year, conceding 9 points per game. The Trojans returned only three starters on defense this year, but if the first two games are any indication, it looks like business as usual for Carroll's black-shoe brigade. USC has given up one touchdown in the first eight quarters this year.
"I think everybody looks at SC and what they've done, and they're trying to do the same things that they are," Erickson said.
Indeed, Arizona coach Mike Stoops made defense a priority when he inherited a 2-10 disaster after the 2003 season.
That's not a surprise, given that Stoops was an All-Big Ten safety at Iowa and that defense is a staple of Arizona's scant gridiron tradition. The only Wildcats in the College Football Hall of Fame are linebacker Ricky Hunley and head-hunting defensive back Chuck Cecil.
"I think the (Pac-10) offenses are so good and so versatile, it's made us play good defense," Stoops said. "I think the programs that are going to be consistent, they're going to play good defense. That's what you have to build your team on."