Las Vegas Bowl
Motor City Bowl
Posted: Wed December 23, 1997|
One afternoon late in the fall of 1976, Mike Price, then a 30-year-old Washington State assistant, got a phone call from Jack Elway, a close friend who had left the Cougars the previous spring to become the coach at Cal State-Northridge. Never mind what I'm doing, Elway told Price, you should see the offense my son (yeah, him) is running in high school. Elway breathlessly detailed for Price a wide-open, pass-happy package that spread receivers from sideline to sideline and was almost impossible to play defense against. "They're killing people, just killing 'em," Elway said of his boy John's Granada Hills High team in Los Angeles. "I'm putting this thing in next year."
Price was fascinated. He had always said his team would throw the ball if he ever became a head coach. Five years later he got his chance when he was hired by Weber State. By then Jack Elway was the head man at San Jose State. One of Price's first acts at Weber State was to load his staff into a van and drive the 800 miles from Ogden, Utah, to San Jose to learn the Granada Hills offense. The attack was the brainchild of Jack Neumeier, a lifelong high school coach who installed it at Granada Hills in 1970 and terrorized opponents with it until he retired in '88. Price has been running Neumeier's offensemost commonly called the one-back, though that description damns it with simplicityfor 17 years. He took it from Weber State to Washington State when he was hired as the Cougars' coach in '89, and on Jan. 1, he'll take it to the Rose Bowl, where Washington State will play for the first time in 67 years. The Cougars' opponent in Pasadena will be unbeaten, No. 1-ranked Michigan, which is attempting to wrap up its first national championship since '48.
This is the way it works on the football continuum. An old passion meets a new one. A 51-year-old coach from one era takes his prized offense and sends it against the newborn defense of a younger man on a larger stage than either coach has ever known. Ideas overlap, generations overlap. Experience meets adrenaline.
Last winter Herrmann, secondary coach Vance Bedford and defensive line coach Brady Hoke studied every Wolverines defensive play from the 1996 season in search of ways to tweak the traditional Michigan scheme, a 5-2 front with the cornerbacks fairly close to the line of scrimmage and the two safeties playing deep, that had been in place since the Bo Schembechler era. "We wanted to utilize our personnel better," says Herrmann. "We wanted to put guys in a position to make plays." Cornerback extraordinaire junior Charles Woodson was moved to nickelback in passing situations, not only making him a threat to blitz but also giving him more room to roam on pass defense. Senior defensive end Glen Steele was given the green light to freelance his pass rush. All manner of blitzeszone, corner, safetywere installed. Woodson and junior corner Andre Weathers were asked to hold down receivers in single coverage.
The results were apparent almost immediately. In the Michigan spring game, sophomore safety Tommy Hendricks scored on a fumble recovery and freshman backup corner LéAundré Brown scored on an interception return. "As Charles [Woodson] and I walked off the field that day, I said to him, 'This defense can be something special,'" says junior strong safety Marcus Ray.
With his scheme in place, Herrmann began working on his players' heads, trying to forge unity. Meetings and practice drills that had been conducted by position (linebackers, defensive backs, linemen) were done as a group. A huge cardboard key was hung in the defensive meeting room on the second floor of Schembechler Hall. The key had 12 notches, 11 of them representing the defensive starters and the 12th representing all of the other players on the defense. "All of the notches have to be intact or we can't open the door to our season," Herrmann remembers telling his players. "If one notch gets broken, the key doesn't work."
Each member of the defense was given a metal key. The key fit a small padlock on a maize-and-blue box that was placed in the meeting room at the start of the season. The box contained a single red rose, a reminder of where the season could end if the Wolverines' defenders all performed as one. A fresh rose was placed in the box each week, and the players were encouraged to open the box and smell the rose, stare at it, fondle it, at their leisure. "Sometimes I'd go in there, sit down by myself and just look at it," says junior inside linebacker Sam Sword. To further emphasize Michigan's goal, Herrmann would sometimes burst into the meeting room and shout at the defense, "Everybody in here who's been to the Rose Bowl, raise your hand." It was a trick question, of course; the Wolverines hadn't been to Pasadena since January 1993, which was before any of the current players were at Michigan. Herrmann, however, was a Wolverines linebacker in the early '80s and played in the '81 and '83 Rose Bowls. When the room fell silent, he would slowly raise his own right hand.
"Coach Herm is intensehe's serious, and he's a true Michigan man," says Sword. "Coach Mattison [a graduate of Wisconsin-La Crosse] was groomed to be a Michigan man, but when Coach Herm tells you about Michigan tradition, you listen."
Once the Wolverines' season beganwith a 27-3 drubbing of then No. 8 Coloradothe results were devastating. The Michigan defense played only 60.0 snaps per game, compared with 70.3 in 1996, and allowed just 11.3 first downs a game, almost six less than in '96. Steele responded with seven sacks and 14 tackles for lost yardage. "He became a dominant player," says Ohio State offensive coordinator Mike Jacobs. Woodson became the first predominantly defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.
The Wolverines usually line up in that same vanilla 5-2, with linemen James Hall, Josh Williams, Rob Renes and Steele down, and linebacker Clint Copenhaver or Rob Swett on one end in a two-point stance. Though the basic look isn't as intimidating before the snap as Florida's or Ohio State's frantic eight-in-the-box press, after the snap is another matter. Michigan attacks with at least five people on almost every down. "But you never know which five it's going to be," says Michigan State offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill.
It could be the front five, it could be three of the front five and two linebackers in a zone blitz, or it could be the front five plus Woodson or Ray. "Even if you have a good idea where the blitz is coming from, it's hard to prepare for their speed and athleticism," says Penn State quarterback Mike McQueary, whose Nittany Lions lost 34-8 to the Wolverines.
Michigan is similarly adept at disguising its secondary coverages, and because Woodson and Weathers are such heady athletes, the Wolverines can change coverages at the last second before the snap. "They switched from a Cover Two [corners soft, safeties on the hash marks] to a Cover Three [corners tight, one safety rolled up to the line, the other in the middle of the field] on me way late," says McQueary. "I threw an interception."
The Michigan coaches were especially acute in adjusting their defense to each opponent. The Wolverines blitzed a shaky Colorado senior quarterback John Hessler on almost every down but mixed it up against McQueary. When Herrmann made a call, it usually worked. "Ohio State had third-and-inches, coach Herm blitzed Sam Sword, they ran a counter with [fullback] Matt Keller, and Sam got him for a loss," says Ray. "Against Michigan State we blitzed Charles, and coach Bedford had told me before that series, 'They'll throw it where Charles was.' I went there, and they threw it right into my arms. Unbelievable. The coaches have been masterminds all year."
Moreover, the unity thing has worked. The Wolverines' team pursuit has been lethal. "They close things down in a hurry," says Wisconsin offensive coordinator Brad Childress.
"Pack of wolves, school of fish, that's our theme," says Renes.
The basic set is four wideoutsa split end and a slot receiver on each sideand one running back, with no tight ends. The goal is to spread the defense, creating one-on-one matchups in the secondary and seams through which to run the ball. (Washington State senior running back Michael Black rushed for 1,157 yards this season.) Like the option, the one-back is an ideal offense for teams with modest talent. Linemen don't have to be drive-blocking behemoths. Passes are thrown quickly, runs break off natural seams rather than pancakes. The one-back is neither the West Coast offense (which emphasizes shorter passes, plus a tight end and two backs) nor the run-and-shoot (which features rollouts and predesigned throws).
"It puts you in a bind," says Arizona State defensive coordinator Phil Snow, whose Sun Devils handed Washington State its only defeat, 44-31. "If you elect to put five guys in the box and play dime [six defensive backs] against the pass, you're going to have a tough time stopping the run. If you put six in the box and elect to cover four guys one-on-one [with a free safety in the middle], somebody is going to get open."
Arizona State beat the Cougars by twice blitzing straight up the middle, a huge risk that momentarily confused Washington State's offensive line and forced quarterback Ryan Leaf into two fumbles, both of which were returned for touchdowns. "They could have just as easily burned us," says Snow. The Sun Devils didn't exactly shut down Price's offense: Leaf threw for 447 yards, including 371 in the second half.
For the season, Leaf, a 6'5", 238-pound junior, threw for 3,637 yards and 33 touchdowns and was second in the nation in passing efficiency. "He could coach this offense by now," says Price. Leaf's job is simple in concept: Read the secondary and throw to where the fewest defenders are. Easy. "It's only hard when some guy is running at you trying to rip your f head off," says Price. Leaf was good enough that he completed at least 20 passes to each of five receivers (Washington State's Fab Five). "When everybody's hot, we're pretty tough to stop," says Black.
It will all be very new to Michigan. Purdue, under first-year coach Joe Tiller, a Price assistant at Washington State from 1989 to '90, tore up the Big Ten with the one-back, averaging 459.6 yards per game, but the Wolverines didn't play the Boilermakers, and the rest of the conference was relentlessly conservative. "Michigan definitely hasn't seen a quarterback who can dial it in there like Leaf," says Childress. The Wolverines will have to figure out how to cover the Cougars' two slot receivers, Kevin McKenzie and Shawn Tims, who together caught 76 passes. "Does Michigan have enough corners to play man-to-man on those guys?" says Snow.
"Michigan is solid, but if it has to cover Tims or McKenzie with a linebacker, it's in trouble," says Leaf. "The fact is, Michigan is going to have to be in nickel or dime most of the time, which it hasn't been all year."
It will be vital for the Wolverines to pressure Leaf with no more than a five-man rush. After a December practice Cougars wideout Chris Jackson tasted the possibilities and counted the days. "Can I use my size against Woodson?" he said. "Can they cover our slotbacks? Can they get Ryan to the ground or will he just shed them?" His eyes flashed. "Can't wait," he said. "Can't wait to see."
Neither can one old coach. An hour up the Ventura Freeway from Pasadena, Jack Neumeier will watch the Rose Bowl on TV in his home in Camarillo. He always watches teams that run what he calls his stuff. Michigan has shiny new keys. His old offense is the padlock.
Issue date: December 29, 1997
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