Every coach in the country watched the Fiesta Bowl. And coaches, like restaurateurs and toymakers, copy what works. Hence this autumn's explosion.
"Backs hate running against a defense like this," says Virginia Tech All-America defensive end Cornell Brown of the press. "They know they're not going to get much yardage." Two options remain for the offense: Show bold confidence in your line and run the ball anyway (even mighty Nebraska couldn't pull this off against Arizona State, getting just 130 yards on the ground), or pass. Against the pass, pressing teams gamble that most college quarterbacks lack the poise to throw effectively when constantly blitzed, a good bet. Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel notes that "there aren't many quarterbacks who can just flat beat you with you aggressively coming at him a lot."
To play the press effectively, teams need the following personnel:
1) Two quick defensive ends and two powerful defensive tackles to occupy the offensive line. Nebraska's 1995 front four of ends Grant Wistrom and Jared Tomich and tackles Christian Peter and Jason Peter, all of whom, except Christian Peter, are still playing for the Cornhuskers, would be the prototype. "Even when they only rushed five, they pressured us," says Florida coach Steve Spurrier, recalling the Fiesta Bowl.
2) Cornerbacks, cornerbacks, cornerbacks. "You've got to have corners or you can forget it," says Bowden. Witness Florida's victories this season over Tennessee (35-29 on Sept. 21) and LSU (56-13 on Oct. 12). Both the Vols and the Tigers challenged the Gators with a version of the press, and both were torched by Wuerffel; the Tennessee and LSU corners simply couldn't stick with the Florida wideouts.
The press leaves cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage because the rest of the defense—except, occasionally, a free safety, who can help only one cornerback—is committed to the line of scrimmage. If the offense spreads four wideouts, then four defensive backs are left in man-to-man coverage. "Every time you come up to the line of scrimmage, you've got to be geared up," says Florida senior cornerback Anthone Lott. If your defense can't cover, wideouts pop free against the blitz, the quarterback throws before the pressure gets him, and you lose, say, 56-13. Corners are the backbone of the press, and they have become the unpublicized superstars of the college game.
At Kansas State, Stoops sent corners Kenny McEntyre and Thomas Randolph to the NFL from his 1993 defense. Corners Chris Canty and Joe Gordon are likely high draft picks from this year's K-State defense. USC sophomore Daylon McCutcheon was a high school All-America at running back but requested to play corner in college. "It's harder, but it's a challenge," says McCutcheon. His solid man-to-man play has allowed the Trojans, not a pressing team, to send occasional blitzes while leaving McCutcheon alone on the outside. "There aren't a whole bunch of great man-to-man cover guys in college football," says USC coach John Robinson. "You're blessed when you have one."
Ohio State has two. The Buckeyes won 11 consecutive games last fall before losing at Michigan, a game in which Wolverines tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka rushed for 313 yards, often finding huge cutback lanes in the Buckeyes' defense. To make his team less vulnerable to cutbacks, Ohio State coach John Cooper instructed his defensive coordinator, Fred Pagac, to install the press. Cooper knew that his team had the cornerbacks to make it work: junior Shawn Springs and senior Ty Howard, two of the best defensive backs in the country. "Where we are now, we can't get beat by cutbacks," says Buckeyes senior linebacker Greg Bellisari.
Florida's Spurrier hired Stoops away from Kansas State after being told that the Wildcats' defense had held opponents to just 4.5 snaps per possession last season. "You know what that means," the offense-minded Spurrier says. "More [offensive] plays for Stevie Boy." Gators cornerbacks Lott, Shea Showers and Fred Weary and strong safety Lawrence Wright are all good cover men. Through seven games Florida's defense has sent opponents three-and-out on 43.0% of their possessions, up from 33.5% a year ago. Former NFL star Archie Manning, who watched his son, Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, throw four interceptions into the revamped Gators defense in September, said afterward, "That's the kind of defense Florida should have. They want to get the ball back quick. They don't want you holding it on them."
The effect on recruiting has been tangible. Coaches using the press can promise recruits that they'll be allowed to blitz, get sacks, cover receivers one-on-one—in other words, work on all the skills that the NFL covets. That's sweet music to the ears of young players. "I don't think anyone likes to be known as a guy who sits back, reads and makes plays," says Colorado middle linebacker Matt Russell. "I think everyone wants to be an aggressive, downhill player."