Defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich showcased a basic cause at a recent media luncheon, sketching a few defensive sets on a napkin to explain why offensive coordinators have such fits – and a rationale as to the reason no team runs the ball on the Mountaineers. His line employs a zero technique with the nose guard over the center. It's this that plays the most havoc with offenses. The traditional 4-3 defense uses a pair of two-techniques; that is, lining up directly over the offensive guards with a pair of defenders. That creates easy double-teams via the center, however, and doesn't allow for as much flow to the outside run – though it does bottle it inside and create a mash of bodies in the middle, where the mike linebacker and the strong safety are there to support.
The odd stack stations the nose guard straight up, asking him to give the center a continual headache all game while the tackle and end are free to take on blocks and rush, respectively. If one has an aerial view of the action, the match-ups are obviously difficult for the offense. There are six on five immediately with the O-line and the three defenders along scrimmage with the trio of linebackers. That's one less than the 4-3 would give. But add in the five defensive backs, and the angles the stack can use with the increased speed to get to the ball, and it proves an enigma for opponents.
Block the line straight up, and if the nose tackle can eat two offensive players, the offense is outnumbered at the point of attack even if it uses a fullback out of an I set. Then, it lacks the speed of the defense in getting to certain locations or keep vertical rushing lanes open. The entire key is largely predicated upon the nose tackle slot, the reason WVU slid Keilen Dykes into the slot last year. The 6-5, 300-plus pounder was the best combination of technique and power on the team, which allowed Johnny Dingle to opwerate on the outside.
"Here's where the difficulty comes in, among other difficulties," said Kirelawich, who with defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, produced a video – "How To Run The 3-3 Odd Stack" – five years ago detailing the defense. "No. 1, you take a kid in the three-technique and a two-technique, a typical (four-man front) setup. Then, here's this kid, the center, with the hardest job on the field to do. He has to snap the ball and block. He is going to do one of three things. He is going to block (right) and the ball goes (left) or block (left) and the ball goes (right) or he blocks up. Then you take your best player and put it right on his head. Right on his head. You tell him he has one job: To beat the living (daylights) out of this guy.
"And he is not used to it. They are just not used to playing with a guy on their head and that's one of the big problems. The other is lining up in the stack itself, it's hard to fit. If you look at it, it's six on five. And no matter how many backs you have, we are going to have one more linebacker, so you are not going to beat us with a back."
And because West Virginia is now using a two-deep looking in splitting the field with a pair of safeties instead of just having the free cover the entire back end, quarterbacks can't check his location and know where the holes are likely to be. The passing windows get smaller, and the cornerbacks are freer to play press coverage because they have closer help on deep routes. With five DBs flooding the area – often a linebacker will drop while a hybrid safety or corner rushes, effectively maintaining the numerical edge while adding an element of surprise – it's difficult for teams to know where to attack. Making those decisions after the snap is much to ask of any collegiate signal caller.
Casteel learned the defense from Wake Forest, whose coaches had seen it run at Mississippi State and South Carolina, albeit mainly with the free safety playing deep with ultra-talented cover players at corner. So, with the odd stack spreading throughout college football and foes increasingly seeing it, are teams catching up?
"Let me tell you something: This is our sixth year running it and we are seventh in the country against pretty much the same teams," Kirelawich said. "They are beating their head against a wall scheming it and they can't come up with something. It's just tough to fit that (stuff) up. Now you gotta have the players. But it's a great defense for what we do."