If the current college football season could be reduced to a
single scene, the scene would unfold like this: A quarterback
calls signals, looking across the line of scrimmage at a defense
massed like William Wallace's civilian army in Braveheart,
crowding the neutral zone, juiced and twitching. Linebackers and
safeties jump into gaps, preparing to blitz, and then hop back
out, sowing confusion. Cornerbacks stand in the receivers'
faces, so close that they could floss the wideouts' teeth. It is
third-and-long because two previous attempts to run against this
wall of pads have failed laughably. The quarterback takes a
quick three-step drop, yet he is swallowed by the rush before he
can plant his feet. Defenders celebrate. The punt team shuffles
onto the field. Change of possession and fade out.
Some coaches have taken to calling this aggressive form of
defense the press, after the basketball strategy of the same
name. They also have taken to calling it, period, with such
frequency and success that relentless, attacking defense has
become the hottest and most effective weapon in the college
game. At its roots the press is a heavily blitzing 4-3 defense
with the cornerbacks locked in man-to-man coverage. Most teams
using the scheme fill almost every gap by bringing all three
linebackers, plus an eighth man, usually a safety, up tight.
Five of the top six teams in the national rankings, and seven of
the top nine, play some form of the press. No. 1 Florida, No. 2
Ohio State and No. 9 North Carolina installed the defense this
season. Arizona State, the No. 4-ranked team, used a variation
of the press to upset another pressing team, now-No. 5 Nebraska,
19-0 on Sept. 21, ending the Cornhuskers' 26-game winning
streak. No. 6 Tennessee and No. 8 Colorado are pressing too. "We
had hardly seen it at all before this year--now it's really in
vogue," says coach Bobby Bowden of third-ranked Florida State,
the only top-six team not using the press.
The press does two things. First, it denies an opponent a
running game by putting at least eight defenders in the "box,"
an imaginary rectangle on and just off the line of scrimmage.
Second, having forced the opponent to throw, it sends in such a
horde of blitzers that quarterbacks have no time to exploit the
inherent weakness of the press, its dependence on one-on-one
pass coverage. Pressing defenses "try to get in the
quarterback's head," says Penn State senior quarterback Wally
Richardson, who was pressured into 14-for-30 passing and sacked
twice in a 38-7 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 5. He isn't the only
prominent quarterback to have taken a pounding from pressing
defenses at least once this fall; so have Tennessee's Peyton
Manning, Notre Dame's Ron Powlus and Nebraska's Scott Frost.
There is, of course, a cyclical flow to "new" ideas in football.
Says Penn State coach Joe Paterno, "I hate to talk about us, but
we played an eight-man front back in '68." Dick Butkus used to
blitz out of the 4-3 for the Chicago Bears. Lester Hayes used to
play bump-and-run from it for the Oakland/L.A. Raiders. Nothing
new. But for now, having lain dormant in the college game, this
defense, reborn as the press, qualifies as innovation.
The godfather of the press is--are you ready?--former NFL coach
Buddy Ryan, whose famed "46" defense, which he created when he
was defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, carried that
team to the 1986 Super Bowl title. Follow the history: On Nov.
4, 1989, Arizona State rolled up 493 yards of total offense in
beating Washington 34-32. "It seemed like they had 1,000 yards
on us," recalls Jim Lambright, who was then the Huskies'
defensive coordinator and has been their coach since 1993. "We
blitzed players in that game, but they had a quick answer every
time, with the three-step drop by the quarterback [Paul Justin,
who threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns]. It was the
beginning of the West Coast offense. There was no way we could
stay in our basic five-man front, zone coverage and not get
It was happening throughout the college game: Sophisticated
offenses were ringing up big numbers while passive zone defenses
such as Washington's let quarterbacks scorch them. The solution
grew from Lambright's memory of Ryan's 46 defense. "We stole
from Buddy, undoubtedly," says Lambright. "The 46 is basically
an eight-man front with corners in man [single] coverage and a
centerfielder [a roaming free safety]. It gives you a chance to
have a numbers advantage over the offensive line." Two years
later Washington blitzed and eight-manned its way to a 12-0
season and a piece of the national title.
As the Huskies were growing into the Bears West, another
development was unfolding in Florida that would help shape what
has become today's press. First Miami (under former coaches
Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson) and then Florida State
injected speed into their defenses as never before, taking high
school safeties and making them linebackers, taking high school
linebackers and making them defensive ends. The Hurricanes and
the Seminoles soon had blitzers who came at the quarterback with
stunning swiftness and defensive backs fast enough to survive in
man-to-man coverage. Rival coaches saw the opportunities that
opened up if a team had speed on defense. "I credit Miami with a
lot of this," says Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie
McBride. "They beat us in bowls every year [1984, '89 and '92]
with speed that we just didn't have."
Other programs watched and copied, borrowing from Washington's
scheme and Miami's and Florida State's legs. Kansas State, with
intense, young defensive coordinator Bob Stoops (remember the
name), went to the press in '93; the Wildcats' once moribund
program won 28 games in three seasons. Arizona's "double-eagle
flex" held opponents to 47.6 rushing yards per game in 1992 and
'93. Virginia Tech's staff visited Washington in the spring of
'92, switched to an eight-man front in '93 and won 31 of its
next 41 games. Last season the Hokies went 10-2 and led the
nation in rushing defense (77.4 yards per game).
Most telling of all, two of the most memorable bowl games of the
'90s--both for the national championship--were dominated by
pressing defenses: In the 1993 Sugar Bowl, Alabama held Miami to
48 yards on the ground and harassed desperate Heisman Trophy
winner Gino Torretta into 24-for-56 passing and three
interceptions. Last Jan. 2 in the Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska,
inspired by Miami's earlier success against the Cornhuskers,
sacked Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel seven times and forced
him into 11 hurries while holding the Gators to minus-28 yards
on the ground.
Every coach in the country watched the Fiesta Bowl. And coaches,
like restaurateurs and toymakers, copy what works. Hence this
"Backs hate running against a defense like this," says Virginia
Tech All-America defensive end Cornell Brown of the press. "They
know they're not going to get much yardage." Two options remain
for the offense: Show bold confidence in your line and run the
ball anyway (even mighty Nebraska couldn't pull this off against
Arizona State, getting just 130 yards on the ground), or pass.
Against the pass, pressing teams gamble that most college
quarterbacks lack the poise to throw effectively when constantly
blitzed, a good bet. Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel notes that
"there aren't many quarterbacks who can just flat beat you with
you aggressively coming at him a lot."
To play the press effectively, teams need the following personnel:
1) Two quick defensive ends and two powerful defensive tackles
to occupy the offensive line. Nebraska's 1995 front four of ends
Grant Wistrom and Jared Tomich and tackles Christian Peter and
Jason Peter, all of whom, except Christian Peter, are still
playing for the Cornhuskers, would be the prototype. "Even when
they only rushed five, they pressured us," says Florida coach
Steve Spurrier, recalling the Fiesta Bowl.
2) Cornerbacks, cornerbacks, cornerbacks. "You've got to have
corners or you can forget it," says Bowden. Witness Florida's
victories this season over Tennessee (35-29 on Sept. 21) and LSU
(56-13 on Oct. 12). Both the Vols and the Tigers challenged the
Gators with a version of the press, and both were torched by
Wuerffel; the Tennessee and LSU corners simply couldn't stick
with the Florida wideouts.
The press leaves cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage because the
rest of the defense--except, occasionally, a free safety, who
can help only one cornerback--is committed to the line of
scrimmage. If the offense spreads four wideouts, then four
defensive backs are left in man-to-man coverage. "Every time you
come up to the line of scrimmage, you've got to be geared up,"
says Florida senior cornerback Anthone Lott. If your defense
can't cover, wideouts pop free against the blitz, the
quarterback throws before the pressure gets him, and you lose,
say, 56-13. Corners are the backbone of the press, and they have
become the unpublicized superstars of the college game.
At Kansas State, Stoops sent corners Kenny McEntyre and Thomas
Randolph to the NFL from his 1993 defense. Corners Chris Canty
and Joe Gordon are likely high draft picks from this year's
K-State defense. USC sophomore Daylon McCutcheon was a high
school All-America at running back but requested to play corner
in college. "It's harder, but it's a challenge," says
McCutcheon. His solid man-to-man play has allowed the Trojans,
not a pressing team, to send occasional blitzes while leaving
McCutcheon alone on the outside. "There aren't a whole bunch of
great man-to-man cover guys in college football," says USC coach
John Robinson. "You're blessed when you have one."
Ohio State has two. The Buckeyes won 11 consecutive games last
fall before losing at Michigan, a game in which Wolverines
tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka rushed for 313 yards, often
finding huge cutback lanes in the Buckeyes' defense. To make his
team less vulnerable to cutbacks, Ohio State coach John Cooper
instructed his defensive coordinator, Fred Pagac, to install the
press. Cooper knew that his team had the cornerbacks to make it
work: junior Shawn Springs and senior Ty Howard, two of the best
defensive backs in the country. "Where we are now, we can't get
beat by cutbacks," says Buckeyes senior linebacker Greg Bellisari.
Florida's Spurrier hired Stoops away from Kansas State after
being told that the Wildcats' defense had held opponents to just
4.5 snaps per possession last season. "You know what that
means," the offense-minded Spurrier says. "More [offensive]
plays for Stevie Boy." Gators cornerbacks Lott, Shea Showers and
Fred Weary and strong safety Lawrence Wright are all good cover
men. Through seven games Florida's defense has sent opponents
three-and-out on 43.0% of their possessions, up from 33.5% a
year ago. Former NFL star Archie Manning, who watched his son,
Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, throw four interceptions
into the revamped Gators defense in September, said afterward,
"That's the kind of defense Florida should have. They want to
get the ball back quick. They don't want you holding it on them."
The effect on recruiting has been tangible. Coaches using the
press can promise recruits that they'll be allowed to blitz, get
sacks, cover receivers one-on-one--in other words, work on all
the skills that the NFL covets. That's sweet music to the ears
of young players. "I don't think anyone likes to be known as a
guy who sits back, reads and makes plays," says Colorado middle
linebacker Matt Russell. "I think everyone wants to be an
aggressive, downhill player."
North Carolina coach Mack Brown instituted the press this season
and also replaced his option offense with a pro-style passing
game, in large part to get better players to Chapel Hill.
"Defensive recruits were being told by opposing programs,
'You'll be working against the option [in practice], you won't
be playing man-to-man coverage, the pro scouts can't watch you
in a pro system,'" says Brown. "We're trying to recruit the best
corners in the country and play nine in the box. We feel like
this is the way for the program to move up."
The popularity of the press won't last, of course. No formation
or strategy remains dominant for long. Offenses will find holes
in the press and exploit them. "It's an extreme defense, and
extreme defenses eventually give up big plays," says USC's
The 66-year-old Bowden, who has seen the ebb and flow of dozens
of trends, imagines the likes of former Nebraska quarterback
Tommie Frazier stretching the press wide and then cutting
upfield or pitching. "The option," says Bowden. "The option
might hurt this thing real bad, with those corners turning their
backs and running up the field." He laughs at the prospect of
reverting to an offense thought dead in most precincts.
"Everybody responds to a trend," says Robinson, as if pulling a
watch from his vest pocket and charting the life span. "It won't
take long. The cycle goes very fast." Not so fast that it won't
decide another national championship.