Take Away State: How Utah State led the FBS in takeaways

By Brady Grayvold | Posted 3/15/2019

The Utah State Aggies have been one of the biggest success stories in college football during this millennium. The Aggies suffered through years of losing seasons before rising to relevance during the mid- to late-2000s. At the end of the 2018 season, Utah State finished with an impressive 11-2 record, capped off with a bowl victory over North Texas. One of the reasons Utah State was so successful was their ability to cause defensive takeaways and gain more offensive possessions. Utah State tied for the national lead in takeaways caused by a defense at thirty-two total, which included ten forced fumbles caused and twenty two interceptions. To go along with these numbers, Utah State finished ranked No. 3 with six takeaways being returned for a defensive score. Compiling all these numbers together, it’s not rocket science to figure out why Utah State had success in 2018. There is a method to Utah State's success in causing teams to lose possessions and they have almost perfected the art. There are multiple ways to create a takeaway culture in your program. Here is how Utah State has done it.

RELATED CONTENT: Setting the Nose in the Tite Front

The first thing you notice that makes Utah State successful in taking the ball away from other teams is their pursuit to the football whenever the ball is in the air. One of the biggest things to stress to kids at all levels is just because the ball has been thrown does not mean you stop and become a spectator. You can see multiple examples from the Aggies’ bowl game against North Texas that when the ball is in the air, players are making a concerted effort to get the ball. Going through their film, there are very few times that a tipped ball doesn’t end up in a member of the Aggies’ hands. In the clip shown here, the linebacker does a great job of driving to the ball at full speed and making a big hit. With that big hit, the opportunity for a free ball situation occurs. As a general rule, every time the ball gets tipped up into the air resulting in a free ball situation, the defense should get its hands on it.

Later in the game, a similar play occurs, and once again Utah State comes up with the ball. The old school tip drill still has plenty of relevance inside your practice structure.

Another staple of the Utah State defense is their ability to get to quarterbacks in the passing game. Instead of just sacks, the Aggies are constantly going for the football. A college defensive coordinator once said, “A sack is always good. But if the player could have gotten the ball out of the quarterback's hands instead of the sack, that player will get a minus play score. Sacks are good, fumbles are better. We want the ball.”

RELATED CONTENT: Three Steps to Hybridize Your Odd Front

Utah State lives and breathes this quote when they reach the level of the quarterback. Defenders are constantly finding ways to get the ball on the ground. A good example of that is shown here with the stand up five technique using a speed edge rush and running the hoop to land in the quarterback’s lap. You notice at the very last second the defender uses a quick chop technique on the quarterback’s wrist to dislodge the football. The key point to this is that even though Utah State doesn’t come up with the loose ball, a takeaway opportunity was created.

Anyone can get there and simply cause the sack, but elite defensive players will create takeaways for the team. Later in the game, Utah State runs a stunt to get a defensive tackle as a free runner, which causes another chop on the ball resulting in a fumble which they recover this time. This is a constant for the Aggies as they pressure the quarterback.

The last thing you notice in studying Utah State and their defensive abilities is their tackling and how consistently good they are at it. All over the field throughout their games you notice how sound Utah State is at both tackling in the box and tackling in space. When ball carriers get wrapped up, they do a good job of getting second man to strip the ball and rake at it. These little things tend to add up throughout games and will help you amass takeaways as you go through a season. From the secondary doing a good job of getting players down in the open field to interior defensive linemen using their one arm tackling technique, good tackling teams give themselves a chance to make plays.

Utah State overall is a very impressive defensive unit that clearly emphasizes forcing takeaways and getting the ball back for their offense. It will be interesting to see if the success at Utah State transfers to the Big 12 as Aggie head coach Matt Wells moves on to Texas Tech.

Photo Courtesy: Wade Denniston, USU Athletic Media Relations

For more football discussion & daily videos, follow Brady Grayvold on Twitter at @CoachGrayvold


Reinforce your playbook and improve your knowledge with Coaches' Notes. Create your account and start your 7-day free trial!