Last year, the Buckeyes led the nation in pass, scoring and total defense, were third in rushing defense and placed fourth in pass efficiency defense. In 2006, the Buckeyes allowed just 12.8 points and 280.5 yards per game, good for fifth and 12th in the nation, respectively.
But if there has been one complaint about the new "Silver Bullets" over the past two years, it's that there have been some troubles stopping the "spread".
Two of Ohio State's three losses during the past two years – those to Florida in the BCS National Championship Game and to Illinois last November – came against teams that run a spread offense. The other, to LSU in this past year's national title game, was against a Tiger team that was more traditional in its sets.
The focus on the spread would seem to be enhanced considering archrival Michigan recently hired one of the innovators of spread offenses, former West Virginia head man Rich Rodriguez. Boasting shifty running backs Steve Slaton and Noel Devine and athletic quarterback Pat White, the Mountaineers last year were in the top 15 in both scoring and total offense running the spread option while finishing third in rushing yards per game with 297.2.
Ohio State seemed to anticipate the effect of Rodriguez's arrival. Coaches were sent this offseason to South Florida and Rutgers, two Big East schools that operated against Rodriguez during the past few campaigns.
But Michigan will not be the only team to spread the field against the Buckeyes in 2008. During his first press conference at the beginning of spring, head coach Jim Tressel mentioned that the Buckeyes expect to face six teams that run a spread offense during the upcoming season.
Oddly enough, five of those – Minnesota (Sept. 27), Purdue (Oct. 11), Northwestern (Nov. 8), Illinois (Nov. 15) and Michigan (Nov. 22) – will be among Ohio State's eight Big Ten opponents. The conference long known as the bastion of smashmouth football at least will feature some more diverse offenses than those of past years.
Adding to the challenge of defending the spread will be the fact that Ohio State will have to go back and forth between facing spread teams and power offenses. The Buckeyes will face Wisconsin, a school long known for a power rushing attack, on Oct. 4 between the games with Minnesota and Purdue.
"The interesting thing in the Big Ten is that you're going to also see some power teams," defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "So I think what Coach Tressel is trying to do is kind of split the practice up and make sure we're getting some good work in two-back, physical power football that you're going to see whenever you play the Penn States of the world, you're going to see at USC, Youngstown State, OU. You're going to get to see physical, two-back football.
"But at the same time, you have to split time and know that you're going to see teams that run the spread, and then you have to take the spread and look at the different types of spread."
Defining The Spread
As Heacock was referring to, calling all offenses that stretch the field horizontally rather than vertically under the large umbrella that is "the spread" leaves a bit of confusion. For example, there are teams who spread out the opposition in order to run the ball, such as West Virginia last year under Rodriguez and Illinois, which was fifth in the nation in rushing last year.
Others prefer to pass the ball after spreading teams out. Purdue, long a proponent of the "basketball on grass" offense under Joe Tiller, was 12th in the nation in passing yards per game last year and quarterback Curtis Painter threw the ball more than 43 times per game on average.
Then there are some teams who try to do both, such as Northwestern – who last year threw more than 500 passes but whose most successful years under the spread have come with talented and versatile tailbacks like Damien Anderson and Tyrell Sutton – and Minnesota. Some spreads, such as those run by the Golden Gophers and Washington, who OSU defeated last year, like to run the ball with the quarterback.
"When you play Purdue, you're going to get a little bit more of the passing part, and then Northwestern, a little bit more of a run spread," Heacock said. "Everybody is just a little bit different, so there's a lot of aspects. So we are really trying to zero in on both, which you have to do."
According to Heacock, a lot of choosing how to defend the spread comes down to the attributes of the quarterback, who in any style of the spread will have the responsibility of making sure everything runs smoothly.
"A lot of the spread is depending on the trigger man," he said. "Can he run the ball? Is he a thrower? Is he a runner? Is he both? Is he better running than he is a thrower? There's all different aspects of it."
Heacock said that last year, Ohio State faced seven teams that would consider themselves spread offenses. A quick look at the schedule yields Akron, Washington, Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue, Kent State and Illinois as those teams. Overall, the squads averaged 9.7 points and 243.9 yards per game.
The two that were most successful (Washington and Illinois) combined for 21 points and 373 yards per game. Both were teams with mobile quarterbacks, Jake Locker for UW and Juice Williams for UIUC, that finished in the top 20 in rushing offense and had more rushing yards than passing yards in 2007.
When asked about stopping teams that run more than pass out of the spread, safeties coach Paul Haynes had a simple answer.
"It's still scheme and knowing what we're doing and being in the right spot," he said.
Part II tomorrow will look at some of the ways the Ohio State coaches and players said they can combat the spread while looking at the different ways to learn about the offenses.