One afternoon late in the fall of 1976, Mike Price, then a
30-year-old Washington State assistant, got a phone call from
Jack Elway, a close friend who had left the Cougars the previous
spring to become the coach at Cal State-Northridge. Never mind
what I'm doing, Elway told Price, you should see the offense my
son (yeah, him) is running in high school. Elway breathlessly
detailed for Price a wide-open, pass-happy package that spread
receivers from sideline to sideline and was almost impossible to
play defense against. "They're killing people, just killing
'em," Elway said of his boy John's Granada Hills High team in
Los Angeles. "I'm putting this thing in next year."
Price was fascinated. He had always said his team would throw
the ball if he ever became a head coach. Five years later he got
his chance when he was hired by Weber State. By then Jack Elway
was the head man at San Jose State. One of Price's first acts at
Weber State was to load his staff into a van and drive the 800
miles from Ogden, Utah, to San Jose to learn the Granada Hills
offense. The attack was the brainchild of Jack Neumeier, a
lifelong high school coach who installed it at Granada Hills in
1970 and terrorized opponents with it until he retired in '88.
Price has been running Neumeier's offense--most commonly called
the one-back, though that description damns it with
simplicity--for 17 years. He took it from Weber State to
Washington State when he was hired as the Cougars' coach in '89,
and on Jan. 1, he'll take it to the Rose Bowl, where Washington
State will play for the first time in 67 years. The Cougars'
opponent in Pasadena will be unbeaten, No. 1-ranked Michigan,
which is attempting to wrap up its first national championship
On the day in 1976 that Price took the fateful phone call from
Elway, Jim Herrmann was 15 years old and playing linebacker for
Divine Child High in Dearborn Heights, Mich., a suburb of
Detroit. Twenty years later Herrmann was named defensive
coordinator at Michigan, where he instantly infused the
Wolverines with a style and vigor that transformed their
defense, in one season, from merely good to one of the most
dominant in recent college history. Michigan has given up less
than nine points and barely more than 200 yards per game.
Herrmann is the new genius, the flavor of the month. But while
the Wolverines' defense has dominated most teams it has gone up
against this year, it has never seen the likes of Washington
This is the way it works on the football continuum. An old
passion meets a new one. A 51-year-old coach from one era takes
his prized offense and sends it against the newborn defense of a
younger man on a larger stage than either coach has ever known.
Ideas overlap, generations overlap. Experience meets adrenaline.
There was nothing seriously wrong with Michigan's defense. Under
Greg Mattison, who was elevated to defensive coordinator when
Lloyd Carr was named Michigan's coach in March 1995, the
Wolverines' D gave up 17.2 points and 284.8 yards per game in
'95 and 15.6 points and 296.4 yards a game in '96. But when
Mattison left last December for a job at Notre Dame, Carr
promoted Herrmann from linebackers coach to coordinator, and
Herrmann began the task of making the Michigan defense not only
functional but also dangerous. Same look, new attitude. It was
the difference between Yanni and Steven Tyler; they're both
skinny guys with long black hair, but only one of them rocks.
Last winter Herrmann, secondary coach Vance Bedford and
defensive line coach Brady Hoke studied every Wolverines
defensive play from the 1996 season in search of ways to tweak
the traditional Michigan scheme, a 5-2 front with the
cornerbacks fairly close to the line of scrimmage and the two
safeties playing deep, that had been in place since the Bo
Schembechler era. "We wanted to utilize our personnel better,"
says Herrmann. "We wanted to put guys in a position to make
plays." Cornerback extraordinaire junior Charles Woodson was
moved to nickelback in passing situations, not only making him a
threat to blitz but also giving him more room to roam on pass
defense. Senior defensive end Glen Steele was given the green
light to freelance his pass rush. All manner of blitzes--zone,
corner, safety--were installed. Woodson and junior corner Andre
Weathers were asked to hold down receivers in single coverage.
The results were apparent almost immediately. In the Michigan
spring game, sophomore safety Tommy Hendricks scored on a fumble
recovery and freshman backup corner LeAundre Brown scored on an
interception return. "As Charles [Woodson] and I walked off the
field that day, I said to him, 'This defense can be something
special,'" says junior strong safety Marcus Ray.
With his scheme in place, Herrmann began working on his players'
heads, trying to forge unity. Meetings and practice drills that
had been conducted by position (linebackers, defensive backs,
linemen) were done as a group. A huge cardboard key was hung in
the defensive meeting room on the second floor of Schembechler
Hall. The key had 12 notches, 11 of them representing the
defensive starters and the 12th representing all of the other
players on the defense. "All of the notches have to be intact or
we can't open the door to our season," Herrmann remembers
telling his players. "If one notch gets broken, the key doesn't
Each member of the defense was given a metal key. The key fit a
small padlock on a maize-and-blue box that was placed in the
meeting room at the start of the season. The box contained a
single red rose, a reminder of where the season could end if the
Wolverines' defenders all performed as one. A fresh rose was
placed in the box each week, and the players were encouraged to
open the box and smell the rose, stare at it, fondle it, at
their leisure. "Sometimes I'd go in there, sit down by myself
and just look at it," says junior inside linebacker Sam Sword.
To further emphasize Michigan's goal, Herrmann would sometimes
burst into the meeting room and shout at the defense, "Everybody
in here who's been to the Rose Bowl, raise your hand." It was a
trick question, of course; the Wolverines hadn't been to
Pasadena since January 1993, which was before any of the current
players were at Michigan. Herrmann, however, was a Wolverines
linebacker in the early '80s and played in the '81 and '83 Rose
Bowls. When the room fell silent, he would slowly raise his own
"Coach Herm is intense--he's serious, and he's a true Michigan
man," says Sword. "Coach Mattison [a graduate of Wisconsin-La
Crosse] was groomed to be a Michigan man, but when Coach Herm
tells you about Michigan tradition, you listen."
Once the Wolverines' season began--with a 27-3 drubbing of then
No. 8 Colorado--the results were devastating. The Michigan
defense played only 60.0 snaps per game, compared with 70.3 in
1996, and allowed just 11.3 first downs a game, almost six less
than in '96. Steele responded with seven sacks and 14 tackles
for lost yardage. "He became a dominant player," says Ohio State
offensive coordinator Mike Jacobs. Woodson became the first
predominantly defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.
The Wolverines usually line up in that same vanilla 5-2, with
linemen James Hall, Josh Williams, Rob Renes and Steele down,
and linebacker Clint Copenhaver or Rob Swett on one end in a
two-point stance. Though the basic look isn't as intimidating
before the snap as Florida's or Ohio State's frantic
eight-in-the-box press, after the snap is another matter.
Michigan attacks with at least five people on almost every down.
"But you never know which five it's going to be," says Michigan
State offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill.
It could be the front five, it could be three of the front five
and two linebackers in a zone blitz, or it could be the front
five plus Woodson or Ray. "Even if you have a good idea where
the blitz is coming from, it's hard to prepare for their speed
and athleticism," says Penn State quarterback Mike McQueary,
whose Nittany Lions lost 34-8 to the Wolverines.
Michigan is similarly adept at disguising its secondary
coverages, and because Woodson and Weathers are such heady
athletes, the Wolverines can change coverages at the last second
before the snap. "They switched from a Cover Two [corners soft,
safeties on the hash marks] to a Cover Three [corners tight, one
safety rolled up to the line, the other in the middle of the
field] on me way late," says McQueary. "I threw an interception."
The Michigan coaches were especially acute in adjusting their
defense to each opponent. The Wolverines blitzed a shaky
Colorado senior quarterback John Hessler on almost every down
but mixed it up against McQueary. When Herrmann made a call, it
usually worked. "Ohio State had third-and-inches, coach Herm
blitzed Sam Sword, they ran a counter with [fullback] Matt
Keller, and Sam got him for a loss," says Ray. "Against Michigan
State we blitzed Charles, and coach Bedford had told me before
that series, 'They'll throw it where Charles was.' I went there,
and they threw it right into my arms. Unbelievable. The coaches
have been masterminds all year."
Moreover, the unity thing has worked. The Wolverines' team
pursuit has been lethal. "They close things down in a hurry,"
says Wisconsin offensive coordinator Brad Childress.
"Pack of wolves, school of fish, that's our theme," says Renes.
Bowl of salad, bottle of dressing. That's Price's theme. He is
sitting in his office on the third floor of crumbling Bohler Gym
while a December snowstorm blows outside his one small window.
"The offense is like a big bowl of salad," he says, working his
hands as if auditioning for his own gig on the Food Network.
"The original Elway stuff is the lettuce. We've added a few
tomatoes from Brigham Young by watching them, some radishes from
Miami [Hurricanes coach Dennis Erickson also ran the one-back
after learning it from Jack Elway], and then me--I guess I'm the
The basic set is four wideouts--a split end and a slot receiver
on each side--and one running back, with no tight ends. The goal
is to spread the defense, creating one-on-one matchups in the
secondary and seams through which to run the ball. (Washington
State senior running back Michael Black rushed for 1,157 yards
this season.) Like the option, the one-back is an ideal offense
for teams with modest talent. Linemen don't have to be
drive-blocking behemoths. Passes are thrown quickly, runs break
off natural seams rather than pancakes. The one-back is neither
the West Coast offense (which emphasizes shorter passes, plus a
tight end and two backs) nor the run-and-shoot (which features
rollouts and predesigned throws).
"It puts you in a bind," says Arizona State defensive
coordinator Phil Snow, whose Sun Devils handed Washington State
its only defeat, 44-31. "If you elect to put five guys in the
box and play dime [six defensive backs] against the pass, you're
going to have a tough time stopping the run. If you put six in
the box and elect to cover four guys one-on-one [with a free
safety in the middle], somebody is going to get open."
Arizona State beat the Cougars by twice blitzing straight up the
middle, a huge risk that momentarily confused Washington State's
offensive line and forced quarterback Ryan Leaf into two
fumbles, both of which were returned for touchdowns. "They could
have just as easily burned us," says Snow. The Sun Devils didn't
exactly shut down Price's offense: Leaf threw for 447 yards,
including 371 in the second half.
For the season, Leaf, a 6'5", 238-pound junior, threw for 3,637
yards and 33 touchdowns and was second in the nation in passing
efficiency. "He could coach this offense by now," says Price.
Leaf's job is simple in concept: Read the secondary and throw to
where the fewest defenders are. Easy. "It's only hard when some
guy is running at you trying to rip your f------ head off," says
Price. Leaf was good enough that he completed at least 20 passes
to each of five receivers (Washington State's Fab Five). "When
everybody's hot, we're pretty tough to stop," says Black.
It will all be very new to Michigan. Purdue, under first-year
coach Joe Tiller, a Price assistant at Washington State from
1989 to '90, tore up the Big Ten with the one-back, averaging
459.6 yards per game, but the Wolverines didn't play the
Boilermakers, and the rest of the conference was relentlessly
conservative. "Michigan definitely hasn't seen a quarterback who
can dial it in there like Leaf," says Childress. The Wolverines
will have to figure out how to cover the Cougars' two slot
receivers, Kevin McKenzie and Shawn Tims, who together caught 76
passes. "Does Michigan have enough corners to play man-to-man on
those guys?" says Snow.
"Michigan is solid, but if it has to cover Tims or McKenzie with
a linebacker, it's in trouble," says Leaf. "The fact is,
Michigan is going to have to be in nickel or dime most of the
time, which it hasn't been all year."
It will be vital for the Wolverines to pressure Leaf with no
more than a five-man rush. After a December practice Cougars
wideout Chris Jackson tasted the possibilities and counted the
days. "Can I use my size against Woodson?" he said. "Can they
cover our slotbacks? Can they get Ryan to the ground or will he
just shed them?" His eyes flashed. "Can't wait," he said. "Can't
wait to see."
Neither can one old coach. An hour up the Ventura Freeway from
Pasadena, Jack Neumeier will watch the Rose Bowl on TV in his
home in Camarillo. He always watches teams that run what he
calls his stuff. Michigan has shiny new keys. His old offense is
Michigan sometimes runs a fire-zone blitz from its nickel
defense (blue, above). The Wolverines attack the quarterback by
rushing two linebackers and a nickelback, possibly Woodson or
Ray, while dropping a lineman into pass coverage. This gives
them a six-man rush from unexpected spots.
Washington State's offensive set (red, above) features two
wideouts, two slot receivers and one running back. The Cougars
like to spread things out so that Leaf (far left) can throw the
ball to all areas of the field. They're not reluctant to run
their tailback into the seams of the attenuated defense.