Defense is the key to shaking off bowl rust

We have reached the middle hour of our long, arduous wait, a time in which cobblers are consumed and coaches become crotchety as the clock ticks closer to Bowl Time.

Most teams have a month between their final down of the regular season and the bowl game they hope to win. Sometimes it’s longer. Notre Dame will wait 43 days between their victory in Los Angeles over USC and the kickoff of the BCS Championship Game against Alabama.

The Tide will have had 36 days off, but no matter. Every team has an inordinate amount of time off before its bowl, and every year coaches get asked about the “rust” factor.

Rust has such a negative connotation. Perhaps we should call it a lack of competitive freshness. Whatever it’s called, though, some teams handle it and some don’t. The teams that come back after the eggnog and jump into competition as if they’d never left usually win their bowl games, while other teams can’t shake the cobwebs until it’s too late.

What is the difference?

In most cases, it has nothing to do with coaching or focus or scheduling or any of the standard old saws that get passed around like bad holiday gifts.

The difference usually comes down to whether a team is offensively or defensively focused.

Offensive teams — those such as Kansas State that put up a lot of numbers but give up a lot as well — likely will have trouble, not because they aren’t talented or prepared, but because timing and precision are essential to the offensive game. It is like seeing the first night of a ballet: the moves are all there, but the crispness won’t show up for a few performances.

Defense on the other hand, is instinctual and reactionary, played with reckless abandon by men who can’t wait to get off the couch and hit somebody. A play or two, and the strong defensive unit is back where it was before the layoff.

Expect Duke to struggle in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 27 against Cincinnati, in its first bowl appearance since after the 1994 season. Not because of inexperience, but because the Blue Devils are not a defensive-minded team. They win by outscoring opponents, not by stopping them. And in a bowl setting in which the offense might need a series or two to shed the turkey and giblets, that is rarely a winning strategy.

Georgia Tech also could struggle against USC on Dec. 31 in the Sun Bowl. The Yellow Jackets weren’t able to stop many people when they were practicing and playing every week. A layoff was the last thing Paul Johnson’s squad needed. Plus, the triple-option offense can be fumble-prone under the best of conditions. After a month off, it’s darn near impossible not to lay it on the ground at least once or twice.

On the other hand, expect LSU to play well against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A bowl on Jan. 1 because Tigers coach Les Miles will field a solid defensive unit and Clemson will rely on its offensive playmakers. Also, expect Texas A&M to get it done against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, not because of Johnny Heisman, but because of the Aggies defense and guys such as Damontre Moore.

Go down the list: Georgia’s defense should outshine Nebraska’s offense in the Capital One Bowl; Florida’s defense should have its way with Louisville in the Sugar Bowl; and South Carolina and Jadeveon Clowney should disrupt a rusty Michigan squad in the Outback Bowl.

Good defense beats good offense more often than not anyway. But after a month-long layoff, a fair defense can beat a rusty offense almost any day of the week. That will be the difference, just as it is every bowl season.