September 04, 2002

Spreading It Around: Why the spread offense still works

Being the first (or even the second) to spot a trend is a must for sports columnists and commentators. The first example in this new college football season is the Death of the Spread Offense. But is it really true? The Sporting News' Tom Dienhart held forth on Aug. 26 with his "Spread offense appears to be shrinking" missive, calling the battle between the scheme and defenses the "ultimate game of cat (defense) and mouse (spread offense). And right now, the cat is winning." Two days later, CBS Sportsline's Dennis Dodd picks up the theme, saying that "in terms of sexiness, only Anna Nicole Smith is waning faster" than the spread offense. On closer examination, both judgments fail on a lack of evidence. Youthful indecision and a lack of discipline found often in collegiate secondaries practically ensure that the spread will continue to succeed. But let's look at the pundits' points. Dodd says that Ohio State's throttling of Kliff Kingsbury and Texas Tech, coupled with Wisconsin's defeat of Fresno State, mean that defenses have figured out the spread. Dienhart cites the reduced offensive production at Oklahoma, Oregon State and Purdue from 2000 to 2001, and credits zone blitzes and quicker linebackers. Is that really what's going on? For every Texas Tech loss (and the Red Raiders offense indeed looked bad against the Buckeyes), I can show you BYU's win over Syracuse. The last time I checked, BYU ran a nifty spread offense and Syracuse had quite a few athletes. Worse for the Orangemen, they barely tried blitzing, so perhaps Dienhart's memo hasn't reached Paul Pasqualoni. There's also the talent level at quarterbacks who run the spread to consider. David Carr isn't at Fresno State this year, and Drew Brees toils in San Diego, not Lafayette, Indiana. The spread ain't an easy offense to run, folks -- it just looks that way when done correctly. The success of the spread often depends on what the defense gives you -- take away the middle and you've left your sidelines exposed. Play too deep and there are underneath crossing routes perfect for a mobile tight end. But it also relies on a quick-thinking quarterback and precise receivers. It's much like the offensive system employed by former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, now with the Washington Redskins: throw it where they ain't. The genius bit is that the defense has to make the first choice, and if the quarterback can react quickly enough, he has a good chance at a completion. So who is making those first decisions? Collegiate secondaries are filled with ex-running backs, ex-quarterbacks, ex-receivers, you name it. Some teams traditionally do quite well in recruiting and training defensive backs (Miami and Ohio State come to mind), but for plenty of schools it's not a primary focus. That's the main advantage of the spread -- it forces defenders to make choices in haste, and often they don't choose wisely. Ohio State stopped Texas Tech because the Buckeyes have a talented secondary, but mainly because they were able to pressure Kingsbury effectively. That's the key -- if you can get pressure on a spread quarterback you have a better chance of disrupting his decision-making. Give a fellow time, the kind of time Syracuse allowed BYU's Bret Engemann, and the spread works like a charm. Derek Willis, a former sports reporter now covering politics, is the editor of, a weblog about college football.

posted by thescoop to commentary at 08:30 PM - 0 comments

You're not logged in. Please log in or register.