Pac looks to get sack attack back on track

Hercules Mata'afa had seven sacks as a redshirt freshman last season and is poised to see more snaps in 2016. William Mancebo/Getty Images

The past few seasons had seen a pass-rushing golden age of sorts for the Pac-12. Specifically, for those in it who would seek to make life for quarterbacks uncomfortable.

Sacks were going up as signal-callers were going down. Offensive coordinators went mad trying to keep their QBs vertical, to little avail.

But that era might be passing. Because 2015 saw a healthy drop from 425 sacks in 2014 to 387 last season. After leading all of the Power 5 conferences in sacks-per-game average three of the past four seasons, the Pac-12 finished behind the Big 12.

Half of the league's teams saw their total sacks drop in 2015, and only one -- California -- had a significant increase from the season before. Five teams had a double-digit decrease.

As much as defensive coordinators package blitzes and stunts and mask coverages to create confusion, the fact remains that sacks are still a player-driven stat. And for the first time in the past four years, only two players -- Oregon’s DeForest Buckner and Arizona State's Antonio Longino -- recorded double-digit sacks. That’s compared to six different players in 2014, three in 2013 and five in 2012.

“No question, it takes a certain type of player,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team was dubbed #SackLakeCity in 2014 after logging a nation-best 55 sacks. “Some guys just have that knack for getting there. We didn’t change anything up last season. We were definitely still trying to get after the quarterback because the percentages of the offense having a successful drive following a sack drop significantly.”

So personnel is the obvious factor here. Utah, which had 37 sacks in 2015, was missing Nate Orchard and his 18.5 the year before. Hunter Dimick (10 sacks in 2014) spent a good chunk of the season on the sidelines with injury.

Washington, which posted 52 sacks in 2014 (second nationally only to Utah), had 18 fewer last season. You can bet the absence of Hau'oli Kikaha (19 in 2014) and Andrew Hudson (12.5) had something to do with that.

The guys on the other side of the ball -- namely the ones trying to avoid consuming turf -- should also get credit for the drop-off in 2015. Last season, nine of the Pac-12's dozen featured quarterbacks had at least some starting experience. That meant quarterbacks more familiar with the speed of the game and more cognizant of impending threats.

“I think you saw teams put a real emphasis on getting the ball out quicker,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team led the Pac-12 in sacks in 2012 and 2013. “There are good quarterbacks in this league. They are aware of what’s coming and they are getting the ball out of their hands quicker. The best way to neutralize the pass rush is to not hang on to the ball any longer than you have to.”

Of course, sacks don’t equal wins. Arizona State led the Pac-12 with 46 sacks and finished 6-7. Utah was 9-4 the year before. Stanford had its lowest sack output of the Shaw era with 34, but still won the league title.

And let’s not hit the panic button just yet. Pac-12 teams still outperformed eight other FBS conferences and the independent schools in sacks-per-game average (the best measuring stick since some conferences have more or fewer teams). But the 38 total fewer sacks - which represents a 9 percent drop from the season before -- might also be a harbinger.

The top three leaders from last season are gone and only six of the top 20 return. The leading returnees, Washington State's Hercules Mata'afa and Utah’s Kylie Fitts, logged seven each. Both could be poised for bigger seasons with more playing time expected. Mata'afa likely takes over for the departed Darryl Paulo and Fitts, who started last season as a backup to Dimick, is expected to start opposite him in 2016.

There is potential throughout the league. But no one who really strikes fear into quarterbacks. At least not yet.

“You’re talking about some really elite guys coming through the league the last few years,” Shaw said. “Anthony Barr. Will Sutton. The Washington guys. Trent Murphy. Guys who excelled at getting to the quarterback. For a while it felt like every team had a pass-rush specialist.”

The next generation could be out there in 2016. And with eight teams still with question marks at quarterback, inexperience at the position could make the sack numbers go up again. Or offensive coordinators have started figuring things out. And quarterbacks are sleeping easier at night.