Covering the Backside

Football, unlike the iconic American sport of baseball, is more one of change, of new ideas that take hold until somebody stops them, of not time-honored customs but modern-day advancements, and of innovation rather than tradition.

It's also, unlike the new-age basketball which has infused its ugliness into the NBA, not a me-first sport, one where the individual is more important than the team, and where creative play is more valued than fundamentals, at least in American play.

"It's the ultimate team game, in our opinion," West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez said of his staff. "You have to rely on others."

In that vein, it is perhaps the sport where coaches and teammates are most valued, of where the men of Xs and Os make real adjustments to players who must use them or suffer. The wishbone, then, begat the single-wing, which begats the wing-t, which begat the I, which begat the pro set, which begat the west coast, which begat the spread. So it was for Rodriguez.

"I noticed," he said shortly after his 2000 hiring at WVU, "that teams who couldn't move the ball at all suddenly would go into their two-minute offense and go right down the field. I thought ‘Why don't teams do that all game?'."

That revelation led to the most revolutionary collegiate offense of our time. The spread mixes everything from the power run to short finesse passing, from managing the ball to milking the clock. It has hard-nosed play and great speed and quickness. And it doesn't limit coaches or players to just one way, but mixes and matches for personnel and abilities. It's little wonder, then, that the four BCS winners (West Virginia, Penn State, Ohio State and Texas) all used a variation of the spread, which can maximize talent each year while hiding lesser players.

Problem is, like any great offensive innovation, defensive coordinators start sweating, start pouring over film and plays and start dissecting every aspect of it, prodding and probing for weaknesses and ways to stop it. When they had moderate success limiting the spread without mobile quarterbacks, coaches turned to signalcallers who could make plays with their feet, like Patrick White, Michael Robinson, Troy Smith and Vince Young. That, too, shall pass, however.

"Teams are changing the way they defend the spread, especially from the backside," Rodriguez said. "You used to just see the linebackers or the defensive ends chase (the play). That left the quarterback open to run coming the other way. Now, they are sending ends, the linebackers. Maybe they send a corner and drop a linebacker to where he was. They keep people at home. It's a lot harder to run the spread now than it was even three years ago."

Which means Rodriguez must keep tampering with his toy to keep defenses honest. He knows West Virginia must pass more to back players of the line. He knows he must educate his quarterback to read the backside pursuit while also looking at coverage and how the offense is being attacked during a play. Sure, White can scramble and make plays on his own, as he did at key times in wins over Louisville, Pitt and Georgia, among others. But rather than having most of a aide of the field open after he reverses back against the flow of the play, White will likely see additional defenders there, forcing teammates to make more plays as well.

"More team are running it, so more people are learning how to defend it," he said. "Those (defensive coordinators) are studying, too."

As they did when they came to Morgantown. West Virginia got visits from current (Penn State) teams and past coaches (Gary Barnett). He had 300-plus prep coaches in for his clinic. All wanted to see the offense and learn about zone blocking and reading the end for the exchange of quarterback keep. But they were also searching for a way to stop the darn thing.

Why, then, would Rodriguez even open his camps to coaches, trading ideas with the likes of those from State College? His reasoning goes that the setup works both ways, that both can profit and, in the end, its really about who can make new adjustments, and who has the players to make it work. And when it comes down to matching wits on improving any idea, well, it reads here that it's better to have the inventor of such than one who merely copies the idea.

"It was a benefit to us because we found out how they defend it," Rodriguez said. "But there are also more things you can do to counter what they do."

Meaning that when players challenge the line, when foes stack the box and threaten to totally shut down the run, to force White and the receivers to beat them, leaving one-on-one coverage or failing to account for a skill position player, somebody's going to make a play and somebody's going to bear the brunt of such.

"We call those situations ‘Instruments Up,' Rodriguez said, "because somebody's band is gonna be playing when they score. We don't know it if will be them or us, but a big play is going to happen, and up go those instruments."

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