Melvin Gordon rushing for 408 yards against Nebraska in the snow stands as a testament to his athleticism, a crowning achievement of Wisconsin's culture, and a scathing rebuke of Nebraska's Blackshirt defensive tradition.
However, when considered within the context of Texas A&M giving up 250+ rushing yards against five of seven SEC opponents, Texas getting blasted by BYU for 550 rushing yards in 2013, or Boston College running for 452 yards against USC, you began to wonder if there's just an epidemic of bad run defense working its way across the nation.
Then, a week after Wisconsin, Oklahoma freshman RB Samaje Perine breaks Gordon's record with a 427-yard day against Kansas. You may say, "Well, that was against Kansas," but the Jayhawks were ranked a decent 47th in rushing S&P+ before the game.
Thirteen power-conference teams are giving up 200 or more rushing yards per game to FBS opponents, and that's trending upward almost annually since 2009, which had only three. So I'm here to diagnose this virus for you so you can recognize the symptoms and be prepared if this ailment strikes your own team.
What went wrong for Kansas
As flawed a team as Kansas has, their defense has played well over the last few years, leading some coaches to propose that interim HC and former DC Clint Bowen should be the permanent head coach. Of course, that seems less likely now.
Kansas is a collection of former three-star talents led by "Captain Heeney," an undersized middle linebacker with elite anticipation and quickness. He has 121 tackles and counting on the season.
Based on the Jayhawks' plan against Oklahoma, you'd have suspected their specific goal was to avoid an embarrassment of the sort that Gordon administered to Nebraska. However, their aggressive approach probably exacerbated their failings.
The Jayhawks showed a variety of coverages, but relied on playing cover 4 man behind 3-4 personnel:
The Jayhawks' plan was to play five defenders on the line of scrimmage at all times and matchup with man coverage behind it. That would keep safeties and linebackers in the box and corners on the outside.
The safeties started the game lined up within seven yards, and crept even closer as the game wore on.
The outside linebackers (S and B) are concerning with keeping the ball contained. The linebackers and safeties are packed into the box to make sure a runner can't find a crease and break free. They divvy up the gaps and possible receivers between them, but perhaps the major flaw by the Jayhawks was relying on so much man coverage rather than zone.
The free safety follows the fullback across the formation after the snap. Since he has him in coverage, the linebacker isn't able to track the running back into the cutback lane. And since the safety is shallow and running with the fullback, he isn't there to clean up.
Since the Jayhawks are using their outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage to keep the ball inside, they can't help once the ball passes the line of scrimmage. The corners are playing man coverage with their backs turned. One mistake, and the entire unit is compromised.
The game conditions were bad, and neither QB could grip the ball it in the torrential downpour. So the Jayhawks selling out to stop the run made sense on paper. Unfortunately, they were so aggressive that every Jayhawk mistake in the trenches was multiplied.
When the Sooners realized how much strict man coverage the Jayhawks were playing, the huge runs came in bunches. Perine ended with 13 runs of three yards or fewer but eight runs of 20 yards or more.
Had Kansas played a safer defense akin to what Nebraska ran against Gordon, they would have given up a strong rushing day against Oklahoma's massive OL. However, they likely would not have surrendered a new record, because their DBs would have been able to run down Perine in the open field.
It's almost impossible for one group of 11 defenders to stop every kind of offense.
Spread offenses have led to bigger offensive games ... for non-spread teams as well. The spread's heavy usage has led to defenses that aren't used to stopping traditional tactics.
The I-formation was designed to unleash dominant tailbacks. It can still do so if an opponent is not used to facing it.
Take the Jayhawks, for instance. Their schedule features several air raid teams, the power-option styling of Kansas State, Texas' West Coast/pro-style offense, and Baylor's unique spread, plus Oklahoma's power run game. How can you stop a straightforward power team when you can devote so little annual preparation time to it?
Their star linebacker, Heeney, is a gamblin' man and on the smaller side as a linebacker. His strength is running from sideline to sideline or darting past OL, not standing up blockers in the hole like a Nick Saban-backer. His counterpart at weakside linebacker is the 205-pound Courtney Arnick, an anti-spread linebacker if one ever existed, whose strengths are similar. Ask him to fill gaps in the midst of big OL coming downhill, and you have a problem.
Against most of KU's schedule, these weaknesses aren't problems. Against Oklahoma, it put them at enough of a disadvantage that their coach felt he had to play ultra-aggressive to compensate.
These problems aren't unique to lower-rung Big 12 teams, who are hoping to develop a two-deep on defense that can stop anything, much less several different styles. USC, for example, can't afford to recruit a defense specifically for a Boston College offense that plays multiple-TE sets and runs veer option over and over, because that team isn't regularly on USC's schedule.
And when you have to change things up ...
When the Sooners realized that motioning blockers could confuse the Jayhawks, they did not hesitate to pick that scab. Similarly, Boston College used a wrinkle on their zone read play to gash the Trojans without mercy. The USC defenders abandoned their plan and became a pack of individuals desperately trying to make a play.
That's when record-breaking runs occur, when a linebacker acts outside of the design and decides to hunt down Gordon, Perine, or Tyler Murphy by his lonesome.
An unsound front is often the product of playing opponents you don't encounter regularly or using a specialized scheme to take down one opponent.
When you draw up a significant alteration to your base defense and it befuddles the opposing OC, you are lauded as a genius. When your players fail to master playing new positions or schemes? You don't look so brilliant. Then again, stick to your base defense and get bested by a superior offensive unit? Same story.
There's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" feel to what happened to Nebraska and Kansas.
Nebraska focused on playing base defense and keeping the ball in front of them. Gordon took the ball behind them. Kansas loaded up to win or die at the line of scrimmage. Perine found no one there.
It used to be that defenses would get ripped when facing a spread passing attack like Mike Leach's Texas Tech units and surrender 500 passing yards. Their linebackers would be lost trying to track down slot receivers running option routes all over the field. Now? Perhaps it's when a team's lighter, coverage-savvy defenders get confused defending new gaps created by tight ends and fullbacks before getting plowed by big blockers and bruising runners.