Two weeks ago, Mike Mullins met with his Harker Heights football staff and decided a change had to be made.
After turning the ball over 13 times through the first three games, it was clear the Knights could no longer depend on their offense to make plays and win games.
“We said, ‘Look, if we’re going to do anything with this (team), we’ve got to slow the game down a little bit, control it ourselves, let our defense do what they’ve been doing,’” Mullins said. “Let’s try and nickle-and-dime it, control the clock and keep (the opposition’s offense) sitting over on the sidelines.”
It’s an old axiom — defense wins championships. And although at 0-3, championships were the farthest thing from Mullins’ mind, something had to be done before the start of the District 8-5A slate. The plan, although counter intuitive to Mullins’ offensive-minded approach, worked as Heights (1-3, 1-0 8-5A) shut out high-powered Belton 7-0 last Friday for their first win of the season.
“I want to be good on defense in this district because there are so many talented teams that we’re going to face another one with a lot of skill kids, good quarterback, good scheme,” said Mullins, a former quarterback who likes putting up points. “So, what does every week hold? I don’t know. But it’s going to be a battle, and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing.”
The next test is tonight at 7:30 against cross-town rival Killeen (3-1, 0-1), which has averaged 31.5 points per game, while at the same time, allowing teams to score an average of 37.5.
Usually giving up more points than you’re scoring is a recipe for losing.
But thanks to an experienced offense led by second-year starter at quarterback Garrett Gaskamp and senior athletes DeVarri McCray and Daniel McCants, the Roos have made it work, including eking out a 42-41 victory over Round Rock Stony Point two weeks ago.
“I think it’s just the times, with wide-open offenses, it’s just hard to (defend),” Killeen coach Sam Jones said. “What you try to do is get stops. So, you have to try to slow them down. ... I’ve always said, good defense stops good offense. You just have to wait and see how it pans out.”
Offensive games have taken on lives of their own in recent years, with a lot of credit going to the rampant use of the spread offense.
Last week alone, three of the four 8-5A games combined for 250 points, with the Heights-Belton game being the lone exception. The highest scoring game was Temple’s 69-37 win over Shoemaker.
“A lot of times, a high-powered offense (is good), but I can tell you every coach ... they want to play good defense, they want to stop people and they’re not okay with that many points being scored,” said Shoemaker coach Channon Hall.
High-octane offenses were especially prevalent at the college level Saturday, when West Virginia and quarterback Geno Smith put up video game-like statistics (45-of-51 for 656 passing yards and 8 TDs) in a 70-63 shootout victory over Baylor. There were a combined 19 touchdowns, and of those 19 scoring drives, 16 took less than three minutes to complete.
“That’s the deal. Fast-paced offenses make for fast-paced games and gives the opponent more touches (on offense),” said Temple coach Mike Spradlin, who’s Wildcats ran 91 offensive plays against Shoemaker.
And by allowing the opponent more offensive opportunities in turn puts more pressure on your own defense to make more stops just to keep pace.
“The thing that’s really changed the game right now is tempo,” Spradlin said. “It’s not the plays we’re running, it’s the pace we’re running them at. And what you’re doing is you’re forcing defenses now to play more base defenses.”
Southern credited the propensity for high-scoring games to better quarterbacks and match-up problems created by the spread.
“Now you take a great athlete who years ago we were putting at tailback and handing him the ball where you’re playing 11-on-10,” said Belton coach Rodney Southern.
“But now you’re putting him in shotgun and zone-read it and put your receivers out, now you’re playing 11-on-11.”
Where to play
Part of the discrepancy rests with which side of the ball coaches are putting their best athletes.
Although, theoretically, coaches would prefer to maintain a relative 50-50 balance, it doesn’t always end up that way. Killeen, in its first season at the 5A level since 2001, has opted to play particular players on both sides of the ball, including athletes like tight end-linebacker Akeem Harrison and Oklahoma State-committed safety Deric Roberson.
“Hopefully, you can utilize them on both sides of the ball, but with today’s explosive offenses, there’s no doubt about it, you put them on offense because if you can’t score, most of the time you can’t win,” Jones said.
Even Southern, who prides himself as defensive-minded, admitted if all things were equal talent-wise, he’d put his best players on offense at a 60-40 ratio.
“Now you don’t get in a situation, like us the other night (against Heights), where if your run game is not there, you don’t have an answer,” Southern said. “Because at some point, you’ve got to score to win.”
Ultimately, though, it’s about making use of where you have an advantage.
“I’ve got to give our team an advantage. If I have David Ash, I have an advantage because I have a quarterback that can execute,” Southern said. “If I’ve got the players Mike Mullins has on defense, if I have (linebacker) Naashon Hughes, I’ve got an advantage at some point, wherever I decide to put him because he’s that good a football player.”
Just win, baby
Two years ago, Belton’s advantage was clearly quarterback David Ash, who, in his second year leading the Texas Longhorns’ offense, is earning Heisman Trophy buzz with the nation’s second-leading pass efficiency mark (184.03).
Of course, there were times when even Ash wasn’t enough of an advantage, such as the 66-63 score-for-score loss to an equally explosive Austin High squad in 2010. In that game, Ash threw for 446 yards and six touchdowns and still came up short.
But, as most coaches agree, the only stat that carries any weight is the win.
“We’re certainly in the minority across the board (as a defensive team), but at the same time, 1-0, 7-0, 70-66 is still a win, (laughs),” Mullins said, “so all those statistics that have guys throwing for eight touchdowns and 765 yards, all that’s great, but there are only two statistics that matter — the win and the turnover-ratio.”
The question then becomes, which philosophy is the most conducive to accomplish that goal. Do you follow the Southeastern Conference model of blistering defense and a reliable quarterback that has resulted in the last six straight BCS National Championships, or the Big 12 model centered around outscoring the opposition and forcing enough stops on defense to pull ahead?
“Nowadays, with the way the game has changed offensively, you can’t rely 100 percent on your defense to win,” Southern said. “You’ve got to rely on them to get you stops — but you’ve got to get the ball in the offense’s hands to score.”
Contact Alex Byington at email@example.com or (254) 501-7566