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Spread the Wealth

Once the great equalizer of college football, the spread offense is now widening the gap between powerhouse programs and the rest of the country.

 Facing third and a long one at midfield, Joe Tiller had a decision to make.

The first year head coach of the Purdue Boilermakers was clinging to a 21-17 lead against the 15th ranked Notre Dame fighting Irish and hoping to atone for last week’s sin of losing to lowly Toledo. The Irish crowded the line of scrimmage, perhaps expecting a power or dive play from a Purdue offense that was only made watchable by the bruising running of Mike Alstott in recent years.

Instead, Tiller called for his senior quarterback Billy Dicken to flip the ball out to the left to freshman Vinny Sutherland in a new fangled play he would dub the “bubble screen.” With room to work in space, the speedy Floridian picked up two blocks and evaded another defender on his way to a 36-yard gain down to the Irish three-yard line. Moments later, Purdue running back Kendall Matthews would punch it in to give Purdue a 28-17 victory, their first over the Irish in 11 seasons, leading to Purdue students rushing the field. Dicken threw the ball 39 times for 352 yards in Tiller’s “basketball on grass” offense that day.

The spread had arrived in the Big Ten.

While Joe Tiller was certainly not the first coach to run an offense predicated on spreading out an opposing defense, his game plan that day in West Lafayette matched the goals of the offense’s inventor, Glenn “Tiger” Ellison. When Ellison invented the original “Run n’ Shoot” offense at his high school in Middleton, Ohio way back in 1958, he did so because his team did not have the strength to push opposing defenses around. What they did have, however, was a collection of small, but talented speedsters. Ellison did what any great coach would have done and got his best players on the field and in positions to succeed. It just so happened that most of his good players were receivers.

Fast forward back to that dreary fall afternoon in 1997 and we see the same motivation in Tiller. As a coach at Wyoming, Tiller certainly did not have the talent to win a ton of football games but, using previous coach Dennis Erickson’s one-back spread offense, that is just what he did. The former offensive line coach added some wrinkles on his way to West Lafayette. The bubble screen would become the most famous, but he also added an emphasis on spreading the defense horizontally as well as vertically and decided he liked going five-wide with his receivers more frequently than Erickson. Despite these changes, he still followed in the same line of thinking that if he can’t push somebody back, he would have to spread them thin and run between them.

But skeptics wondered if this “gimmick” offense could work in the traditionally physical Big Ten.

Not only did Tiller’s offense prove skeptics wrong, it made him the winningest coach in Purdue history and helped him take a program that had not been to a bowl in 14 years to eight consecutive post season appearances and 10 overall, including the 2001 Rose Bowl. It championed speed and finesse, two things folks in Big Ten country could care less about at the time, over brute force. The next year when sophomore Drew Brees took the reigns of the offense, he rode it to the best statistical career any quarterback had ever had in the conference. All this at conference bottom dweller Purdue.

But, like anything else in football, people took notice. Suddenly Ohio State, long a conservative offensive team under coaches like Woody Hayes and John Cooper, was departing from Jim Tressel’s I-Pro and running a one-back spread to utilize the talents of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith. Tressel wasn’t the first conservative coach to make the jump.

The year prior, Texas, which had dominated college football in the 60’s and 70’s running a packed in Wishbone offense, switched to a spread option based offense that would accentuate quarterback Vince Young’s ability to beat opposing defenses with both his arm and his legs. There is little doubt that Tressel was inspired by this move, but by the time he reached the 2007 BCS Championship Game, he would have to deal with another spread guru, Florida’s Urban Meyer.

Meyer’s version of the spread was more like Mack Brown’s Texas offense the year before, using the zone read(a play where the offensive line leaves a defensive lineman unblocked and quarterback sticks the ball in a running backs belly. If the lineman that was left unblocked bites down to follow the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball. If not, he hands the ball off.) along with a short passing game based on precise timing. Florida would win the game in a shocking blowout, but either way, the spread was taking over major college football.

That would be reflected in several of the major hirings over the next few seasons. Rich Rodriguez, the supposed inventor of the zone read, was hired at West Virginia and then Michigan. Dan Mullen, Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Florida, would land at Mississippi State. Chip Kelly took the helm at Oregon and went on to meet second-year Auburn coach Gene Chizik, a man hired more for his offensive philosophies than for his winning percentage at Iowa State, in last year’s title game. And, of course, the spread is currently ruling Big 12 country, with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Missouri all running some variation of the old BYU “Air Raid” offense.

But, in winning at such an alarming rate and garnering praise and recognition, the spread’s forefathers(at least in major college football) may have destroyed it. Well, at least the original reason for its invention.

The spread no longer gives the underdog a hidden advantage because football factories like Oregon, Auburn and Oklahoma bring in athletes that other teams simply cannot defend in space. Powerhouses now know how to run the offense, and are doing it with a relentless efficiency that Tiller could have never hoped for at Purdue. When Tiller’s Boilermakers went up against Tressel’s Buckeyes in 2007, the spread was no longer effective because the Buckeyes now understood its principles and were able to put their most athletic defenders in position to defend it. On the other side of the ball, Purdue could know the offense as well as anyone, but still could not hope to match up with the stable of future NFL receivers, including Brain Harline, Brain Robiskie and Dane Sanzenbacher, that Ohio State had recruited to run its offense, which now featured spread elements as well as a powerful I-Pro ground game.

So now the scheme that once gave rise to its fair share of underdog stories is crushing them all. Do you think any small schools had the talent to match up with four receivers and tackle Vince Young, Tim Tebow or Cam Newton in space? Don’t hold your breath on that one. In fact, the successful underdogs of today’s college football landscape are the ones that can slow down the spread. Teams like TCU with coach Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 defense that, up until opening day of this season against Baylor, had been unbelievably effective against the wide-open attacks that are now so popular in the southwest.

People always say that the NFL is a “copy-cat” league, but really that is true of all levels of football. When something works, people will steal it. In the case of the spread, that means taking an offense that was meant to give a smaller team a secret weapon against a powerhouse, and giving it to the powerhouse to essentially use as a nuclear bomb against the smaller team. I guess it’s time to get back to the drawing board for football coaches that hope to win above their talent level.


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