How about a variation on a political saying during convention week: "It's the option, stupid."
We – that is, those who follow Ohio State football, be it as fans, mild-mannered reporters or whatever it is you reading this right now happen to be – have spent the summer, it seems, or maybe the last two summers, concentrating on the spread and stopping it, but conversations with Ohio State defensive coordinators past and present has me thinking that is not the correct focus.
This year the topic is particularly pressing as roughly eight Big Ten squads figure to make some variation of the spread a main component of their attack.
The problem, not just for Ohio State but for defenses across the country, is not the spread as a formation. The Buckeyes have stopped the spread plenty of times in the past decade since Joe Tiller brought it to Purdue and Big Ten.
You may recall the old days when teams like Purdue and later North Carolina State gave the Buckeyes fits moving the ball up and down the field with bubble screens and short passes, but Ohio State won almost all of those games. In 2002, for instance, the Buckeyes took down Texas Tech, Washington State and Purdue, all of whom used pass-heavy spread offenses. They were 2-0 later in the decade against N.C. State teams loaded with future NFL players.
In 2004, though, the same year they downed the Wolfpack for a second straight season, the Buckeyes dropped a game to Northwestern for the first time since the 1971. Guess what? In that game, Northwestern ran for 166 yards, including 113 for tailback Noah Herron, who benefited from the zone-read play with quarterback Brett Basanzez, who did his part through the air with 278 yards passing.
As I've started examining this issue, I must say that I feel like it should not have come as a surprise.
After all, the option was a deadly college offense for years after the veer was developed and popularized at places such as Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Even after it fell out of style at most Division I-A colleges, high schools across the country continue to run it to this day.
Speed overwhelmed the bunched-in, I-formation or wishbone-based option at the college level eventually, and the veer's death knell probably sounded with the desire of coaches to be able to recruit athletes who wanted to be prepared for the more pass-reliant West Coast offensive principles that permeate most NFL playbooks. The principle of defensive discipline required to stop the option never went out of style, however, and combining it with the spread formation has proven to be pretty much a stroke of genius by coaches such as Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer.
The old triple-option when run by a smart (and preferably tough) quarterback eliminated the need for at least one blocker, no matter the formation.
The spread does that and presents fewer people to block, too, because the necessity of matching up with multiple receivers moves even today's speedier players far enough away from the ball that they can't get to it until at least a decent gain has been made.
Recalling conversations I had with high school coaches the past few years about why they chose to use the option, the effectiveness of the spread-option makes total sense. Run correctly with just about any type of personnel, there is a guarantee of the three or four yards per play needed to sustain a drive. Replace "average" players with more gifted athletes and you just might turn some of those short gains into touchdowns.
What we can expect to learn this week:
Hmmm… maybe not a lot, at least conceptually.
I guess I would not be surprised to see Ohio State in a variety of offensive looks against Youngstown State. Then again, maybe all the coaching staff will want to show the public is old standbys like the I-form, three-WR and simple shotgun sets. Throw in a wing-T or three-WR, one-back, one-TE shotgun set for good measure.
Or we could see the famed "pistol" for the first time, too.
I see two trains of thought, both of which make about the same amount of sense. Either hide everything until week three with hopes of getting the drop on Southern California with previously unscouted strategies, or throw as much out there as possible, whether any are really going to be a staples of the 2008 offense or not.
I would tend to go with the latter. Were I running a football team, I would rather have seen a new strategy work on the field against live competition than wonder just what I am getting and then see it blow up at an important moment. On top of that, in this day and age of instant information, keeping true secrets is exceedingly difficult. Readers of this site know that Ohio State has practiced the pistol formation. They know Brandon Saine spent bowl practice and spring ball practicing to be a Swiss Army knife, able to hurt opponents in a number of ways, and they know Terrelle Pryor probably will be used as a change of pace. Guess what – if readers in the general public know, so do OSU opponents.
That's why I would lean toward sacrificing secrecy for working the bugs out.
But there is still plenty of curiosity leading up to this opening day. Will Todd Boeckman show he is more in sync with a wider variety of receivers in 2008 than just the Brians? Will Boom Herron prove why he's been so hyped up all offseason?
Fit for the DVR:
Depending on one's viewing habits, DVR might not be an essential tool this Saturday.
For scouting purposes, the Ohio Bobcats travel to Wyoming for a 2 p.m. EST start to be broadcast on The Mtn.
If you have the Big Ten Network and its overflow channels, you can get a sneak peak at the new starting quarterbacks at both Wisconsin and Penn State by taping the Badgers' noon kickoff with visiting Akron and the Nittany Lions noon visit from Coastal Carolina.
Every other big game of the weekend follows the Ohio State-YSU tilt, including Southern California's trip to Virginia (3:30 EST start time on either ESPN2 or ABC Regional, depending on your part of the country), Michigan hosting Utah in Rich Rodriguez's Michigan debut (also 3:30 on ABC Regional or ESPN2) and the big showdown between Illinois and Missouri in prime time (8:30, ESPN).
Also of note: Ohio State's fourth opponent of the season, Troy, opens the season Thursday night with a visit to Middle Tennessee that will be broadcast by ESPN Regional. That contest kicks off at 7:30 p.m.
Cus Words Power Poll*
1. Ohio State (Doesn't this go without saying?)
2. Illinois (The Fighting Illini have more starters back than you think, but it probably comes down to how much Juice Williams improves at quarterback)
3. Wisconsin (The Badgers have lots to smile about, but can they make the leap to the top?)
4. Penn State (The offense is intriguing, but what about the injury and graduation depleted defense?)
5. Michigan State (Everyone's chic pick to make a big jump: Let's see if the quarterback got better, though.)
6. Northwestern (Experience on offense often means up years for the Wildcats)
7. Michigan (A completely new offense and not enough new defensive players could spell disaster in Ann Arbor)
8. Indiana (Something of an enigma with the Kellen Lewis off-field issues during the offseason, but the Hoosiers could be more dangerous than we think)
9. Purdue (What will the last hurrah include for Joe Tiller? It's hard to say)
10. Minnesota (I guess they can't be any worse than 0-8 in the league)
11. Iowa (I guess they can be worse, and will)
*Though some preseason prognosticators choose to guess where teams will finish, this is a projection of just how strong each Big Ten team is at the start of the season. It does not take into account schedules or guesses as to what players might develop in what ways as the season progresses. We'll just have to wait for all that to play out, won't we?
For those of you who like to reminisce, here's a look back at how the teams finished last season, in my estimation.
Cus Words Power Poll – Post-Bowl Edition
1. Ohio State
2 (tie). Illinois and Michigan (I realize Michigan won its bowl game and the head-to-head matchup – I just think Illinois has better players overall, so I figured this was the most fair thing I could do.)
4. Penn State (Flip a coin with the Badgers… )
5. Wisconsin (…or consider Bielema's boys lost to an eminently average Tennessee in the Capital One Bowl while the Nittany Lions got a postseason win.)
6. Michigan State (Just think if this team had a quarterback.)
7. Purdue (Good win for the Boilers up in Motown.)
8. Indiana (Disappointing showing in the bowl but a respectable season nonetheless.)
9. Iowa (Justice was done in the Hawkeyes' missing a bowl.)
10. Northwestern (It's hard to get a read on this program.)
11. Minnesota (Is there anything worse than being the only losing team in a conference?)