The Spread Offense and the Element of Surprise

Rex McBride makes a case for why the Cougar offense will succeed in 2005 and beyond.

In the last several years, the two teams (BYU 2001 and Utah 2004) who have brought powerhouse offenses to the MWC have come in with a new wrinkle that was tough to defend. In both cases, the new wrinkle was accompanied by an outstanding:

- playmakers (Doman/Staley/Mahe/Jolley and Smith/Warren/Savoy/Johnson), most of whom were juniors or seniors when the offense really cooked, and

- supporting cast, especially the effective OL.

When you look at the most successful teams, they include playmakers and supporting cast. One group can't do it without the other

In Utah's case, they had the advantage of Whitt's defense to widen the victory margin. In their first conference championship, they LOST to UNM. In Utah's case, they snuck up on a lot of teams that first year, and beat BYU by 3 to 0. Showing that experience matters even for a conference champ, Smith and the boys refined their attack even further, and the 2004 team was far superior to the 2003 team.

In BYU's case, we had Schmitty's ho-hum defense whose deficiencies were covered up by Doman/Staley running up the odometer. We also had most of our offensive playmakers and supporting cast graduate, thus exposing the ho-hum defense.

The reason I bring this up is because of the Texas Tech-Cal game. Cal is the one team that had USC on the ropes, yet at the last minute, USC found a way to win. If the game was decided by areas other than score -- which it isn't -- Cal "outplayed" USC.

Cal is a terrific team, but their defense got taken apart by the Tech offense. Why?

I go back to the element of surprise of new match-ups.

- Crowton brought it in 2001, with an OPTION ATTACK (?????) executed by Doman/Staley, etc.

- Urbanksy brought it in 2003 and 2004, with a passing option attack that had a QB who could also run.

- Tech ambushed Cal with a spread offense, where the QB did not run that much. It's different than anything Cal had seen. Cal would like to line up and play smash mouth with you, and had the physical talent to hang with USC until the last few moments of the game.

I suspect that the Cal defensive coaches looked at the Tech offense as a gimmick offense that they could handle by being physical with them -- it almost worked against USC, so surely it will work against Tech, right? -- starting with those wide OL gaps.

Tech's wide OL gaps were an invite to blitz up the middle and hit the QB. If they hit the QB early and often, it didn't matter what the Leach's cute X's and O'x looked like.

Problem is that the Tech OL was deceptive, saw the blitzes, and pinched down on them, so it was only rare that the blitzer got through. Coming from the outside was harder, with two or three more steps to go to reach the QB, due to the wide splits. (News flash -- Coach Anae was responsible for the OL, and had them tuned and ready for a fine Cal defense.)

It was not so easy for Cal to get to the QB, and the QB quickly spread the ball all over the field, and the WR's and RB's kept the Cal defense off balance all game long.

Looking at that game as it developed, it made me think that Tech was saying to Cal "we will get you, before you can get to us."

USC's Leinart is a terrific QB, but the Cal defense gave him fits. The Oklahoma defense against Leinart seemed easy in comparison, but all that shows is that some teams (and coaches) match up better than others. That's why we don't want coaches or journalists voting on who is the best. The teams need a playoff to prove it on the field.

It's really odd, but I'm sure Oklahoma and Cal have similar caliber of athletes on defense. Let's say that Oklahoma has an edge in that department. Yet, Cal's defense matched up better to USC than Oklahoma's did.

At halftime, the Oklahoma coach was openly disappointed that his LB's and DB's did not stay deep enough. Someone was surprised at Leinart's ability to loft passes deep, and how accurate the Leinart to WR/TE combo turned out to be.

It wouldn't surprise me if Oklahoma's defense pressed WR's and TE's all year long and got away with it. They hadn't faced fast WR or a QB who could loft the ball over the top. When they faced it, they got creamed. The first time it happened, they didn't buckle up. They lost their poise, and USC did it again and again.

The reason I bring all of this up is that Coach Anae is bringing a new offense to BYU that takes advantage of some things that BYU once did. But there are new wrinkles, many of which the MWC hasn't ever seen. (I focus on the MWC, because we need to take care of business inside the MWC.)

It's great that we have more juniors and seniors in 2005 who have been through the wars, because they'll pick up the new offense faster than if they were freshmen or sophomores. Still, just like Alex's first year with Urbanksy's offense, there will be a learning curve in that first year.

If our offensive players face a learning curve with the new spread offense, the MWC defenses have another weird offense to deal with. Our players may make some mistakes and not execute as perfectly or instinctively as they will in 2006, but the bigger problem will be MWC defenses in dealing with the deliberate match-up problems -- in space -- that the spread offense creates.

Just like BYU, all teams have trouble finding lock down CB's. There aren't anything like 234 lock-down CB's in the 117 Division 1. It's much easier to find LB's.

What the spread offense does is force the defense to take out 1 or 2 first string LB's, and put in 1 or 2 second string DB's, either CB's or safeties. If it's 1 DB, it's a nickel package. If it's 2 DB's, it's a dime package.

Either way, it replaces one or two first string players with one or two second string players, for most of the game. If the defense's nickel back is a second string safety, he will be able to cover better than a LB. However, a scatback RB would likely have a quickness advantage on him.

My guess is that defensive teams that handle the spread the best are those that are deep, i.e., where the falloff on the nickel and dime is not that great. If they have two great CB's on the second string, the spread offense won't get the same quickness advantage as if they were safeties. (These generalities won't be true in all cases.)

I expect the BYU spread offense of 2005 to surprise MWC defenses, in the same way that Doman/Staley surprised everyone in 2001 and Smith/Warren surprised everyone in 2003 and 2004.

The nickel and dime backs of MWC defenses are going to be tested, and we'll see which defenses have real depth and which do not.

Thing is, Coach Anae in practices will be giving first team reps to WR's, RB's and TE's for this all-out attack every day. The poor MWC teams will spend most of their time during preseason and practices with their starter LB's in the game, to deal with conventional offenses.

Therefore, there is no way that the MWC nickel and dime packages will have so much first string prep time during preseason and practice, as Anae gives our WR's, RB's and TE's. If the MWC teams lack depth at CB like BYU does, then this lack of depth will be exposed even more, when the second stringers then have to play on the first string when BYU comes to town.

Lack of real CB depth has been a killer for BYU. It will be a killer for any MWC team dealing with the spread offense for the first time.

The building blocks of each MWC team keep changing each season, with new coaches and new offenses. Without those building blocks, an 11 or 12 win team can drop to a 6 or 7 win season the next year, faster than you can turn around.

Finally, in 2005, the building blocks give BYU an edge we haven't seen for awhile. We still have to execute, or it's all theory.

It's nice to know the building blocks are coming into place.

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