The Pitt defense thought it had the play snuffed out. As Utah's Alex Smith took a shotgun snap and began running an option to his left, defensive end Keith Hill, linebacker Malcolm Postell and safety Tez Morris swarmed toward receiver Paris Warren, who'd gone in motion and, the Panthers figured, was about to take a pitch from Smith. At the same time, strongside linebacker H.B. Blades closed in on Smith from behind. There was just one problem: No one had kept tabs on Utes running back Marty Johnson, who was breaking from the backfield toward the line of scrimmage.
Shown in super-slow motion, the video of the play captures the panicked look on Morris's face the instant he realized what was about to happen. Smith looked back to his right and flicked a shovel pass to Johnson, who raced through a gap and went 18 yards untouched into the end zone. That score put Utah up 21--0 in the third quarter of last January's Fiesta Bowl, which the Utes would win 35--7.
In four weeks of practice leading up to the game, Pitt's defense had prepared for that play and routinely stopped the shovel pass at the line of scrimmage. "[But] the speed with which [Utah] ran it made it very hard to defend," says Panthers defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. "I can remember a number of times our staff commented, 'I don't know how you prepare for this team in a seven-day game week.'"
As the Fiesta Bowl showed, even four weeks wasn't enough.
over the last seven months coaches from high school to Division I have studied the spread-option offense that carried Utah to a 12--0 season, helped Smith become the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL draft and landed Utes coach Urban Meyer, who first conceived the offense four years ago while he was Bowling Green's coach, a seven-year, $14 million deal from Florida. Meyer's exotic hybrid--running the option out of a spread formation with the quarterback in the shotgun and multiple receivers in motion--terrorized not only Mountain West foes but also teams from BCS conferences. Utah churned out 582 yards of offense in a 41--21 victory over Texas A&M, 669 yards in a 46--16 win against North Carolina and 467 in the Fiesta Bowl blowout.
And while the term spread offense usually invokes images of pass-happy quarterbacks throwing out of five-receiver sets, last season Utah averaged nearly as many yards on the ground (236.1 per game) as it did through the air (263.7). "No one else really runs [the spread] like we do," says Meyer, 41, whose affable, confident demeanor recalls an earlier offensive wizard at Florida: Steve Spurrier. "When we first put a pencil to it [at Bowling Green], we were just trying to win some games at a place where we were a little undermanned. We never envisioned it would be the talk of the country four years later."
In the wake of his success at Bowling Green (a combined 17--6 in 2001 and '02) and Utah (22--2, two Mountain West titles and a school-best No. 4 national ranking), Meyer says he got calls in the off-season from coaches at nearly 20 Division I-A schools looking for more information about the offense. Texas A&M, which had quarterback Reggie McNeal running some of Utah's schemes last season, dispatched a team of assistant coaches to Gainesville to learn more from Meyer and his staff, as did Virginia Tech. Mike Sanford, Meyer's offensive coordinator at Utah, is the new coach at UNLV and is installing the spread option there. Oregon, Purdue and Missouri have added components of the spread option to their playbooks, as has seven-time Division III champion Mount Union. Even college football's alltime winningest coach, Florida State's Bobby Bowden, is interested. In the spring he invited Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon--Meyer's offensive coordinator in 2001 and '02--to Tallahassee to educate the Seminoles' staff on the scheme that Brandon helped devise and still runs.
"Around 1981 or '82 I asked [then San Jose State coach] Jack Elway, who was the first guy I had ever seen run the one-back spread, 'What do you think would be the perfect offense?'" says Purdue coach Joe Tiller, who this season will mix in some option plays with his spread to better exploit the mobility of new starting quarterback Brandon Kirsch. "He said, 'Run this spread stuff, along with some veer option football.' Well, don't look now, but 20 years later, what are we seeing?"
It's not as if Meyer reinvented the wheel. Nearly all the elements of his offense--the spread formations, the shotgun reads, the option pitches--were plucked from somewhere else. No team, however, had ever mixed them quite the way Utah did last season, when the Utes lined up almost exclusively in the shotgun with one running back or an empty backfield, and with four or five receivers (one of whom was often an H-back who went in motion and slid into the backfield). The base play is a zone read in which the quarterback takes the snap and, upon determining the pursuit of the defensive end in front of the running back, hands off to the back or tucks it and runs. On a speed-option play the quarterback runs along the line, then keeps the ball or pitches back to the running back or motion receiver. Then there is Meyer's updated version of the triple option, such as the Fiesta Bowl touchdown play, in which the QB can keep the ball, pitch it or toss a shovel pass ahead to a back or slot receiver (Warren, against Pitt).
As if all those possibilities aren't enough to tax a defense, the quarterback can audible to virtually any offensive play out of nearly any formation by shifting the backs or receivers before the snap. The reliance on quick-release passes also limits the ability of defenses to blitz. "You've got to spread out and defend the passing game but also stay option-sound," says Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione. "If you get overloaded to one side and don't adjust, you're suddenly empty against something coming from the other side."
Meyer grew up in northeast Ohio watching the traditional I formation offenses of Ohio State and Notre Dame. After playing defensive back at Cincinnati in the mid-1980s, he began his coaching career in '86 as a graduate assistant at Ohio State under Earl Bruce, a Woody Hayes disciple. He didn't get his first exposure to a one-back offense until '93, as receivers coach under Sonny Lubick at Colorado State. Three years later Meyer took the same post at Notre Dame, under venerable option coach Lou Holtz and then Bob Davie.
During his five years in South Bend, Meyer became increasingly fascinated by the spread offenses popping up around the country. By the late '90s Purdue's Tiller, Louisville coach John L. Smith and offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez of Tulane were using their own versions of the spread to reverse years of losing at their respective schools. Also, as an assistant at Colorado State and Notre Dame, Meyer had coached against Air Force for years and had seen the headaches that Fisher DeBerry's triple-option offense caused defenses, even those that had better athletes than the Falcons'.
In the spring of 2000 Meyer and graduate assistant Dan Mullen (now the offensive coordinator at Florida) visited Smith at Louisville and returned with several spread elements that Davie incorporated into the Fighting Irish offense; Notre Dame went to the Fiesta Bowl and finished 9--3. That same year Meyer watched in amazement as Northwestern, using a spread attack derived largely from the scheme run by Rodriguez, who was now at Clemson, racked up 654 yards in a 54--51 win over heavily favored Michigan. "The day Dan and I left Louisville," says Meyer, "we knew [the spread] is what we wanted to be. But we wanted to combine option elements with it."
Meyer landed the Bowling Green coaching job in December 2000 and promised at his introductory press conference to use spread formations to "force the opponent to defend the entire field." Two months later, following the end of recruiting season, he and his offensive assistants--including Brandon, whom he'd hired from Colorado, and Mullen, whom he'd made his quarterbacks coach--hunkered down for three weeks of closed-door brainstorming sessions in "a little staff room that dripped when it rained," says Meyer. "I made it clear I wanted to have a physical, tough offense with spread principles, and I wanted some option in there." Staffers were dispatched to Northwestern, Purdue, Louisville and West Virginia (where Rodriguez had become coach), and soon the new offense was born. "Over the last four years," says Mullen, "it evolved into what we run today."
the big question is whether the spread option will be effective week in and week out against SEC players, who are more skilled and faster than those in the MAC and Mountain West. "I'm not sure if that offense survives in the ACC or another big-time conference [where] its quarterback is going to get hit like that," North Carolina coach John Bunting said after the Tar Heels' loss to Utah last season.
While Meyer concedes he'll have to be careful about how often he runs junior quarterback Chris Leak, who at 6 feet, 205, is four inches shorter and a few pounds lighter than Smith, other coaches are more optimistic than Bunting. "It's going to do well," says Georgia's Mark Richt, who'll get his first look at the Gators' new attack when the teams meet in Jacksonville on Oct. 29. "There's going to be more speed on defense [in the SEC], but they'll also have more speed among their offensive personnel than they had at Utah."
The strategic soundness of the spread remains intact, but there's one element of Meyer's offense that he can no longer count on: surprise. From the wing T to the run-and-shoot, college offenses are cyclical, each innovation met by a corresponding adjustment in defensive strategy. The biggest challenge awaiting Meyer and his disciples, other than teaching their players the system, will be keeping it fresh. "There's a ton of defensive coordinators spending a lot of time figuring out how to stop this," says UNLV's Sanford. "It's our job to stay ahead."
PLAYING WITH SPACE
HE GENIUS of Urban Meyer's offense is how it mixes spread formations that open up the field with option runs that enable the quarterback to exploit the resulting gaps in the defense. This composite photo depicts a typical play out of Meyer's book--a variation of the shovel pass that proved so effective for Utah against Pitt in January's Fiesta Bowl. Like all plays in the spread option, the shovel pass calls for a split-second read by the quarterback and clockwork precision from his teammates. When executed properly, as Pitt discovered, such a play is extremely difficult to defend.
Out of the shotgun, quarterback Chris Leak takes the snap and rolls right, with the options of keeping the ball, pitching it to the motioning wideout or shoveling it to the running back.
Lining up to the left of Leak, running back Markus Manson heads for the gap between the right guard and tackle.
Receiver Chad Jackson goes in motion from the right, then curls into the backfield as a pitch option for Leak.
Reading the pursuit of the left defensive end, Leak shovels the ball forward to Manson and admires the result.
Receiver Jemalle Cornelius lines up wide right and takes the cornerback down the side of the field.
Receiver Andre Caldwell runs a short curl route and provides downfield blocking for the ballcarrier.
The offensive line run-blocks left to create space for Manson.
Wideout Dallas Baker sets up wide left and runs a fly down that side, drawing the cornerback away from the play.
Having received the shovel pass from Leak, Manson splits the line and runs to daylight through the open space created by the defense's overpursuit of Leak.
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The question is whether the spread option will succeed against BIGGER, FASTER SEC players.