Defending the Spread

  • By John Antonik
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  • September 10, 2012 01:44 AM
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It has become clear that spread offenses have dramatically changed college football these days. Now, it’s quite common seeing teams leading by 30 doing double moves or throwing fade passes at the goal line late in games to score even more touchdowns.

Seventy points used to be reserved for Nebraska when it played against North Texas and Pacific. Now, it’s happening in BCS bowl games like last year’s Orange Bowl when West Virginia dropped 70 on Clemson.

Just about everyone is scoring points in bunches today, and NCAA statistical trends certainly bear that out.

In 2006, the mean scoring average for NCAA teams was 24.4 points per game. Last year, the number swelled to 28.3 points per game. The same goes with total yardage … in 2006, the mean was 346.9 yards per game and last year it was 392.4 yards per game.

In the Big 12 Conference, the numbers are much greater. In 2006, Big 12 teams were averaging 27.9 points and 373.9 yards per game. Last year, those totals increased to 34.5 points and 453.3 yards per game.

Texas Tech, which lost seven games last year, did so despite averaging 34 points per game! Teams are throwing the ball all over the lot and bright, innovative coaches like Dana Holgorsen who can think on their feet are making life miserable for defensive coordinators. Yes, the days of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler slugging it out between the tackles are long gone.

“Oh boy, Bo and Woody wouldn’t recognize this,” said former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen earlier this week. “They’d say, ‘What is this?’ Football has changed. It’s a different game.”

Nehlen is not sure if he could stop today’s offenses, but if he was on the other side of the chess board he said he would do everything he could to try and confuse opposing quarterbacks.

“The biggest advantage the spread has is the clock because they don’t huddle and they have 25 seconds to look around,” Nehlen said. “Well, if you are a defensive coach then you’ve got to say, ‘What they’re looking at they don’t see.’ In other words, you’ve got to camouflage everything you do. In my opinion, I’d give them the same look every time.”

According to Nehlen, he wouldn’t even have his defensive linemen down in a stance before the snap.

“I’d walk them in, walk them out, slide them over, stand them up or have three guys in one gap and nobody in two gaps,” he said. “Then, three seconds later, they’re all in the other gap and make that quarterback go, ‘Whoa, now wait a minute.’ Nobody seems to do that and I don’t understand it?”

Nehlen actually did something similar to this in his early days at West Virginia. Hall of Fame linebacker Darryl Talley recalled a defense the Mountaineers once used against Virginia Tech that was called ‘Sticky Sam.’

“They put me on the nose and they had Delbert Fowler stacked right behind me,” Talley recalled. “They put me and Delbert in the middle of the field, two defensive linemen next to us, and stacked our inside linebackers Dennis (Fowlkes) and Dave Preston right behind us, and wherever the hell we wanted to go we ran. We brought everybody up to the line of scrimmage.”

Nehlen said he would not sit back and simply let a quarterback pick his defense apart - much like his Mountaineer defense did against Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie in 1984. During that game, Nehlen brought the house almost every time Flutie dropped back to pass.

“I’d have those five-techniques engage the daggone tackles and as soon as they engage them and they play screen, I’d bring those inside backers and outside backers with nobody to block them and I’d try to make life miserable for that quarterback,” he said.

However, because offensive teams do such a great job of controlling tempo these days, blitzing a bunch of different guys every time or standing everyone up at the line of scrimmage could end up causing more problems for the defense than they can actually create for the offense.

“There is merit for that, and at times you see people doing that, but the biggest thing is when people start tempoing you it becomes a little bit more difficult,” said West Virginia co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “Now all of a sudden they are tempoing you and coming off the ball, so you better be in a stance and ready to go.”

Patterson does concede that defenses have to do a better job of disguising things and creating confusion for the spread offenses that they are facing today.

“There are issues whenever teams are trying to go fast,” he said. “The biggest thing is, and you’ve heard me say this before, most big plays come from a miss-execution on the defensive part, not necessarily great execution on the offense.”

Co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest says the speed of offenses and the rules that permit them to do it dictate how the game is being played today.

“The offense controls the tempo of the game,” he said. “The defense has to assume everything is fast, get lined up, notice the formation, and come up with a plan of what they run out of this formation. Well, if you are just mulling around and you’re not set and they get up there and snap the ball, then what do you do?

“The biggest thing is identifying the offensive formation and based on practice and film study, what are they going to do out of these formations? And what is the situation of the game? Is it tied? Is it a two-minute situation? Are they up or down?”

In addition to disguising looks, Nehlen said he would also make sure opposing quarterbacks are being hit on a consistent basis.

“If I want to hit a quarterback I can hit him – I can hit him every single time I want to,” said Nehlen. “If he’s releasing the ball you can hit him. It’s a call, but I know one thing, I’d hit him.”

Again, the rules restrict how defenses are able to hit quarterbacks today. Twenty or 30 years ago quarterbacks were allowed to be hit even after they threw the football. For instance, Jeff Hostetler was hit every single time he went back to throw (39 times) during West Virginia's ‘82 game up at Pitt, oftentimes well after he had released the ball.

Today, that’s an obvious 15-yard penalty on the defense.

“It’s an offensive world today,” admitted DeForest.

Something Talley said he would do – and defenses still have the ability to do – is make a great effort to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage.

“You can’t let them get off the line of scrimmage,” Talley said. “They are afraid to get beat deep, but they want to give everybody a free release and you can’t give somebody a clean release at the line of scrimmage. I don’t care who it is.”

One thing is becoming clear: defenses are being required to defend a lot more plays. Last week, West Virginia’s defense was on the field for 101 plays during the Mountaineers’ 69-34 win over Marshall. In the past, that might constitute two game’s worth of action for a defense.

“That’s the nature of today’s football,” said Patterson. “We played 101 plays but you know what, I’d rather defend 101 plays and score 69 points on offense than try to grind it out and it’s 7-6 or 10-7 or 14-13, so you have to embrace it.

“We talked about this, but we need to be a defense that compliments the offense, and I think you will see us develop that throughout the year.”

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.


Spread offenses, Don Nehlen, Dana Holgorsen, Darryl Talley