Tuesday, September 23, 2008

D-e-e-fense, d-e-e-fense

The Big Sky Conference has been known for the past 30 or years or so as an offensive football conference. The league hit its peak as an offensive conference in the 1990s, when BSC teams averaged over 30 points a game for an entire season five times, and that trend reached a crescendo in 2001, when Big Sky teams averaged almost 32 points a game. The University of Montana certainly played a big role in that trend under Don Read and Mick Dennehy -- the Griz actually averaged over 40 points a game twice during that period.

But do you want to know the REAL secret to Montana's success (10 conference titles won or shared in the last 11 seasons)? It's defense, folks. The Griz have led the league in scoring defense 8 times in the last dozen years, including the last three years in a row. Sure, the Griz have had efficient, effective offenses during that time period, but it's Montana's ability to slow down the rest of the league that has given them the ability to dominate the Big Sky.

You need only look at Idaho State's history in the league to note the importance of defense. The Bengals haven't had a great deal of success on the football field over the years, but when they have been good, their defense has been a huge part of it. Here are a couple of watershed moments in ISU football, and the corresponding improvement in defense:

In 1979, ISU went 0-11 and gave up 332 points (33 points a game). In 1980, the Bengals improved to 6-5 and cut their points allowed by over a third -- to 201 (18 points a game). ISU followed that up with a national title in 1981 -- and continued to improve defensively, giving up only 172 points in their 13 games (just over 13 points a game). Most of us fans remember that exciting, wide-open ISU offense in 1981, but the defense was terrific, giving up over 20 points only four times, and 30 only once -- and that was in double overtime.

Although ISU went 8-4 and made the playoffs in 1983, the Bengal defense gradually deteriorated over the decade of the 1980s, until the 1987 team, in Jim Koetter's last season as head coach, gave up a record 445 points (over 44 points a game). The 1990s saw some minor improvement under Garth Hall and Brian McNeeley (whose 1995 team went 6-5 and gave up only 259 points -- just over 23 a game), but the coaching change to Tom Walsh saw numbers rise significantly again -- 356 points allowed in 1997 and 415 in 1998.

Once again, a coaching change was made, and when Larry Lewis came on in 1999, the defense again struggled -- the Bengals gave up 429 points in Lewis' first season (an average of 39 points a game). As Lewis gradually built the program, however, the defense got better over the next three seasons. Finally, in 2002, ISU led the league in scoring defense -- 189 points, an average of just over 17 points a game, and the Bengals enjoyed a three-way tie for the Big Sky championship. Alas, the defense regressed in subsequent years, giving up 423 points despite the Bengals going 8-4 in 2003, and then 357, 304 and 330.

Enter John Zamberlin. The new Bengals coach saw his team give up 393 points last year, an average of almost 36 a game. ISU gave up 40 points or more five times last year, and already this season Bengal opponents have broken the 40-point mark twice and North Dakota put up 38 in the other contest.

Rebuilding the defense has to be priority No. 1 for Zamberlin and his coaching staff. In fact, history shows us it is the critical factor in building a competitive program. History also shows us it's not impossible -- the Bengals led the league in scoring defense in 1981 and 2002, and won or shared the league titles in both seasons. But it's also been nearly impossible for ISU to sustain good defense over the years, especially after coaching changes. The natural attrition and interruption in recruiting flow seems to affect the defense more than it does the offense. (It's a lot harder finding and developing top caliber defensive players, and there are a lot fewer to go around at the FCS level. The turmoil caused by coaching changes just makes it that much more difficult to put a good defensive team on the field).

Montana is at the other end of the spectrum -- the Griz have put strong defenses on the field nearly every year for the past decade. Any team that wants to challenge Montana dominance must figure out a way to match their consistency in defensive excellence. Nobody in the league has risen to that challenge, year-in-and-year-out. Idaho State's target is less-auspicious: the Bengals just want to see improvement on defense the rest of this season. As Big Sky Conference play begins this Saturday at Eastern Washington, defensive improvement is mandatory for the Bengals to be competitive in the league this year.

Thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun. -- Brad B.

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