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January 27, 2008
Two of the best coordinators from 2007 dared to be different.
Before the 2005 season, Christensen scrapped Missouri's pro-style offense for a no-huddle, spread attack to better compete against the powerhouses in the Big 12. Before 2002, Casteel, facing a shortage of linemen and a surplus of defensive backs, converted to a 3-3-5 defense.
While both teams had success in previous seasons with their new schemes, they found the right mix in '07. Had both teams won in the final week of the regular season, Christensen and Casteel would have game-planned against each other in the national championship game.
That Missouri and West Virginia were only a win away from that stage is a testament to the work of Christensen, Rivals.com's National Offensive Coordinator of the Year, and Casteel, Rivals.com's National Defensive Coordinator of the Year.
Watching all of bowl season at home wasn't easy for Dave Christensen in December 2004, but it was a turning point in his career and in the history of Missouri football.
The Tigers disappointed fans that season by going 5-6. Christensen followed bowl season closely, looking for answers. He watched Bowling Green's spread offense beat Memphis 52-35 in the GMAC Bowl. Hawaii and Texas Tech both won bowls with their pass-first schemes.
The exclamation point came New Year's Day when Urban Meyer and Utah capped an undefeated season with a win over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl using a spread offense. In the Rose Bowl, Texas' Vince Young - using a version of the spread - won the first of two bowl MVPs in a win over Michigan.
Christensen saw the spread as a way to close the gap between Missouri and the giants of the Big 12. With his job on the line, and perhaps those of coach Gary Pinkel and the rest of the staff, Christensen revamped his playbook to adopt his version of the spread.
"I talked to Gary and said we've got to do something that would give us an edge," Christensen said. "We went to a spread-type of scheme ... where we could get the skill players that it would take to run this. We wouldn't have to line up and try to pound the best people in the Big 12 Conference, but use space and speed as our friend."
The staff studied as many spread teams as possible but worked closest with Gregg Brandon's staff at Bowling Green, a team that used the scheme to beat the Tigers 51-28 in 2002. The Falcons' staff spent a couple of days in Columbia teaching the Missouri staff the concepts of the offense before the Tigers added their own touch.
By 2007, Missouri ran the offense to near-perfection. The Tigers were a preparation nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. Missouri had enough versatility in its personnel to change formations drastically from play-to-play without huddling.
"People say 'You run the spread and everybody else runs the spread,' " Christensen said. "I would venture to say there's not a team in the country that runs the spread offense the way we run it. We have a lot of different elements as far as tempo and speed."
Few ran the spread as effectively. Missouri was in the top 10 in the nation in passing, scoring and total offense. More important, the Tigers were second in third-down conversions (53 percent) and ran the fourth-most plays per game (79.43).
Missouri was able to hit defenses from all angles in '07. Five receivers had at least 40 catches, including two tight ends. Tony Temple rushed for 1,039 yards and 12 touchdowns. Speedy wide receiver Jeremy Maclin had 1,055 receiving yards and added 388 on the ground.
Guiding the whole thing was quarterback Chase Daniel, a Heisman finalist.
"You couldn't focus on one guy. That was our goal at the start of the season," Christensen said. "We wanted to distribute the ball to all of our playmakers. I told them in the spring my biggest challenge was to get nine guys touches in a game. We were able to do that."
Separating Missouri from some of the other spread teams is Christensen's "oddity plays." On Sundays, after dinner, Christensen would sit at his living room table drawing up plays with unbalanced formations or offensive linemen split 10 feet apart ? "bizarre stuff they don't have a chance to prepare for."
The trick plays were added to surprise the defense as much to liven up practice, which is run just like Missouri's offense on game day, fast-paced and with no huddles.
"They could do that stuff (the base offense) in their sleep," Christensen said. "We have to put in these oddity plays to have a little bit of fun with them."
All the "oddity plays" led to one of the best seasons in Missouri history. The Tigers went 12-2 and finished fourth in The Associated Press poll, its highest final ranking in school history. They reached the Big 12 title game for the first time and played in a New Year's Day bowl for the first time since 1970.
With Daniel, Maclin and tight end Chase Coffman returning next season, there's little chance Christensen will be stuck at home for bowl season anytime soon.
West Virginia's defense never needed to be reminded it played a part in the Mountaineers' failure to win a Big East title in 2006.
The defensive deficiencies were on full display in a 44-34 loss to Louisville when Brian Brohm passed for 354 yards to give the Mountaineers the first of two losses on the season. Players heard the grumblings throughout the rest of the season, which still ended with 11 victories and a victory over Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl (although Yellow Jackets QB Taylor Bennett passed for 326 yards and three touchdowns in his first start). It continued into the offseason and spring practices.
If only West Virginia had a defense to match its dynamic offense, critics said, the Mountaineers could be even better.
If that wasn't enough, Mountaineers defenders reminded themselves by putting up signs that read "109" ? West Virginia's ranking in pass defense in 2006 ? in their dorm rooms.
"It was more than a number," senior defensive tackle Keilen Dykes said. "It was everything. It was how the media ripping us."
A chip on the shoulder can go a long way.
Under Casteel, West Virginia allowed 54.4 fewer passing yards per game this season. The overall defense improved as a result and WVU was one win away from playing in the national title game. The Mountaineers' defense ranked in the national top 10 in yards allowed per game and points per game. And for the third consecutive season, WVU led the Big East in rushing defense.
Casteel credits the turnaround to a veteran lineup, which loses seven senior starters. The addition of safety Ryan Mundy, a transfer from Michigan, beefed up the secondary.
Casteel said the defensive staff anticipated this kind of season as early as spring practice, but the players didn't start to believe it until the third game. In that contest, the Mountaineers held Maryland to 269 total yards and picked off quarterback Jordan Steffy twice in a 31-14 win.
"The Maryland game is when it all came together for the kids," Casteel said. "From then on is when they knew they had a chance to be good."
All of these career years coincided when the Mountaineers started paying closer attention to their coach.
"He did a great job last year, but I don't think some of the players really bought into it and did what they were supposed to do," Dykes said. "This year we came together."
All Casteel had to do was put his personnel in spots where they could be more effective. During the offseason, he tinkered with some of the blitzes out of the 3-3-5 set. He moved Reed Williams from outside linebacker to the middle, where he became the team's leading tackler and the defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma.
While West Virginia's explosive offense has garnered most of the attention, the Mountaineers' defense has been under the radar. Aside from the porous pass defense in 2006, West Virginia had been consistent in Casteel's 3-3-5 defense since it was installed in 2002.
West Virginia's new look was born out of necessity. WVU didn't have the bulk on the defensive line to run an effective 4-3 defense before 2002, so former coach Rich Rodriguez dispatched Casteel to learn the five-defensive back look from then-Wake Forest defensive coordinator Dean Hood.
"We though it would be easier to get second-level players and 'tweeners than to get the dominant defensive linemen," Casteel said. "The kids we had on our team at that time (were) a lot of linebacker-, safety-type kids, and we were short on linemen. We thought that would be our best chance to be successful."
The defense has caught on at West Virginia, and so has Casteel.
It might not be so easy for West Virginia in 2008, though. Those seven senior starters are gone, leaving Casteel to coax career years out of a new batch of defenders.
Dykes, for one, has faith he can repeat the success of 2007.
"Coach Casteel is a brainy guy," Dykes said. "His schemes always work. It's crazy what he can find and what he can do with it."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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