October 6, 2010 6:51:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- As defensive systems go in the professional game, the 3-4 defense is the popular way to go.
Now that it has proven effective in the NFL, it was only a matter of time before a wave of base 3-4 systems hit college football.
With the likes of the University of Alabama, Notre Dame, and Texas A&M running the system, more teams are using the 3-4 as a defense that features more players who can play in the space to help them combat spread offenses.
At 7 p.m. Saturday (CBS College Sports), Mississippi State will face its second opponent -- Houston (3-1) -- in its first year running a 3-4 defense this season.
MSU (3-2) faced a 3-4 defense two weeks ago in a 24-12 victory against the University of Georgia. Players and coaches feel like success against Georgia should translate into a productive day against Houston.
"They pretty much look the same to me," wide receiver Leon Berry said. "They''ve got the same people. They''ve got the same two corners. It kind of helps us a little bit. We moved the ball on Georgia, and we can probably do it this weekend."
Houston and Georgia don''t run exact copies of the 3-4, but players maintain the base principles for attacking the defense are the same.
"It''s nothing we haven''t seen before," guard Quentin Saulsberry said, "but everybody varies as far as stunts and blitzes. You got different coordinators and different philosophies, so we have to work on what we have to do."
MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said he can draw from the team''s game against Georgia for his game plan against Houston, noting the similarities between the team''s coordinators.
Houston''s first-year defensive coordinator, Brian Stewart, once called plays for the Dallas Cowboys. Georgia first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham also is a former Cowboys assistant.
"You can see the background of both coordinators being in the NFL, so you''ll see some similarities," Koenning said. "I''m sure they''ve watched our Georgia game to get some tendencies on us."
The popularity of the 3-4 defense in college is an extension of a trend of using what works at the next level, Stewart said.
"In football, things are gone and come back, gone and come back," Stewart told the Cypress Times (Texas). "When I was a college coach the first time around, it was all 4-3. People dabbled in the 3-4, but there were no experts or teams who solely ran the 3-4. But then in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers used it well. The last few Super Bowls they''ve been in, the 3-4 was why they were so dominant, so that sort of put a resurgence in it, with the top three or four defenses in the NFL are 3-4 defenses -- we decided to look at it."
Houston''s switch to a 3-4 has paid off. The Cougars, who finished 111th in the country in total defense (451.29) last season, are giving up 81 fewer yards per game this year and are ranked 72nd.
Houston''s run defense (226.57) has improved from one of the nation''s worst (115th overall last season) to 78th this year.
Despite the improvement, Houston''s defense has faced just one team that ranks in the NCAA''s top 70 of total offense.
The success MSU had running the ball last season against Houston, coupled with the 179 rushing yards against Georgia this year, has it confident it can have the same results Saturday.
The key to success against Houston won''t be as much about running the ball effectively as it will be picking up blitzes and accounting for each player before the ball is snapped, running back LaDarius Perkins said.
"Houston plays a 3-4 with standup ends, and you never know it''s a SAM (strongside linebacker) or an end. It''s kind of hard to pick up sometimes. It''s a little bit different from Georgia, which didn''t blitz all that much.
"Houston will drop an end and bring one at times, and sometimes they''ll bring the end and the MIKE (middle linebacker). You''ve got to be real aware of all that, and we''ve been working on it with the scout team and starting defense."
MSU''s offense, which has proven dynamic and balanced through the first five weeks of the season, enters the game with a passing offense that has improved from 113th in the nation last season to 65th this year.
So while Houston''s defense has improved statistically in Stewart''s 3-4, MSU Feels its improved play on offense will help counter the Cougars'' improvement.
"I think the kids understand the system, understand what''s going on," Koenning said. "They understand the checks, what we''re looking at. Any continuity you can create offensively, each year you''re going to get better and better because they understand more and more and more.
"The problems occur when you have a lot of changes."