Ahead of the 2019 season, Clemson’s defense coordinator, Brent Venables, traveled to Ames, Iowa, to study Iowa’s 3-3-3 defense. The scheme was devised by Hurricane Defense Coordinator John Hickok as an antidote to the widespread, high-powered crime that dominates the Big 12, and programs across the country have been gaining success for ISU. Venables is one of the many defensive tacticians who have met Hickok on a 3-3-3 crash course in recent years.
Venables did not adopt Hickok’s defense as a primary alignment, but has been known to publish it when the situation calls for it. Now the head coach in Oklahoma, one of those situations arose last week when the Sooners visited the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Dodge the record-breaking four-way Venables, the Sooners lined up at 3-3-3 almost exclusively in a 49-14 win. NU’s offense was supposed to be the only part of the team still running as the program continued to capsize, but the Huskers failed miserably to string the drives together for the entire game.
So what did the OU’s 3-3-3 look like in execution versus the Huskers, and when might the Venables and defensive coordinator Ted Roof use it again in the future?
3-3-3 gets its name from the fact that it generally begins with a stack of three linemen and three linebackers and there are high safety spots in the middle of the field. They are joined by two pillars, of course.
The above image from the first quarter provides an example of how tourists line up. On the defensive line, nose tackle Jeffrey Johnson has defensive end Reggie Grimes and Ethan Downs on either side. Inside LBs David Ugwoegbu and Danny Stutsman play about three yards from the ball in the gaps between the NT players and top players. About five yards deep from the line of scrimmage, the third LB, DaShaun White, lines up to the field side of the offensive formation in the alley between the narrow end of NU and the widely divided indoor receiver. In addition, the OU showcases three high security points for Cornhuskers: Billy Bowman plays in the middle of the field, and Justin Broiles and Damond Harmon build shop around hashtags on opposing sides.
But why use a 3-3-3 against Nebraska and not a team like Kent State?
It’s possible that Venables decided to make a massive overhaul of the ISU’s defense as a blueprint for the OU going forward. That doesn’t sound like his style, especially in the middle of the season. At Clemson, use 3-3-3 as a change, and we can assume that’s the plan now.
Another possibility was that Venables felt confident that the OU could handle a NU ground game using three-man fronts and light running chests. This frees up a place in the squad for an additional defensive back in place of a fourth line player.
Another factor worth considering: offensive tendencies. Nebraska’s offensive coordinator Mark Whipple appears to be fond of trips and formations with three receivers to one side of the field. for example:
Such a formation usually forces the defense to address the imbalance in passing power in one of two ways. First, it may impose a mismatch between the receiver and what is usually a weaker passing defender. An internal LB might be called for the guy against the WR slot, for example. Also, if the defense has to overburden one side of the field by shifting cover players to defend a three-receiver look, it may be exposed on the other side.
The 3-3-3 group helps relieve some of this pressure. In the image above, NU places three widely divided receivers to the field side of the configuration. OU matches three players with coverage – cornerback, safety and SAM LB – wide. Meanwhile, the Sooners still have cover assistance available from the Middle and Border Reservoirs, who are supposed to have trigger switches to identify them as well.
A smart bet for tilting the OU on Saturday with Kansas State is that the 3-3-3 D will be back on the shelf. The Wildcats play rough football, and they love 12 individuals (one running back and two tight ends). This indicates that the Sooners will need a fourth DL to help with the trenches more than the additional DB will cover.
But don’t be surprised to see a 3-3-3 comeback again at some point in the following weeks against TCU and Texas.