If the current college football season could be reduced to a single scene, the scene would unfold like this: A quarterback calls signals, looking across the line of scrimmage at a defense massed like William Wallace's civilian army in Braveheart, crowding the neutral zone, juiced and twitching. Linebackers and safeties jump into gaps, preparing to blitz, and then hop back out, sowing confusion. Cornerbacks stand in the receivers' faces, so close that they could floss the wideouts' teeth. It is third-and-long because two previous attempts to run against this wall of pads have failed laughably. The quarterback takes a quick three-step drop, yet he is swallowed by the rush before he can plant his feet. Defenders celebrate. The punt team shuffles onto the field. Change of possession and fade out.
Some coaches have taken to calling this aggressive form of defense the press, after the basketball strategy of the same name. They also have taken to calling it, period, with such frequency and success that relentless, attacking defense has become the hottest and most effective weapon in the college game. At its roots the press is a heavily blitzing 4-3 defense with the cornerbacks locked in man-to-man coverage. Most teams using the scheme fill almost every gap by bringing all three linebackers, plus an eighth man, usually a safety, up tight. Five of the top six teams in the national rankings, and seven of the top nine, play some form of the press. No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 9 North Carolina installed the defense this season. Arizona State, the No. 4-ranked team, used a variation of the press to upset another pressing team, now-No. 5 Nebraska, 19-0 on Sept. 21, ending the Cornhuskers' 26-game winning streak. No. 6 Tennessee and No. 8 Colorado are pressing too. "We had hardly seen it at all before this year—now it's really in vogue," says coach Bobby Bowden of third-ranked Florida State, the only top-six team not using the press.
The press does two things. First, it denies an opponent a running game by putting at least eight defenders in the "box," an imaginary rectangle on and just off the line of scrimmage. Second, having forced the opponent to throw, it sends in such a horde of blitzers that quarterbacks have no time to exploit the inherent weakness of the press, its dependence on one-on-one pass coverage. Pressing defenses "try to get in the quarterback's head," says Penn State senior quarterback Wally Richardson, who was pressured into 14-for-30 passing and sacked twice in a 38-7 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 5. He isn't the only prominent quarterback to have taken a pounding from pressing defenses at least once this fall; so have Tennessee's Peyton Manning, Notre Dame's Ron Powlus and Nebraska's Scott Frost.
There is, of course, a cyclical flow to "new" ideas in football. Says Penn State coach Joe Paterno, "I hate to talk about us, but we played an eight-man front back in '68." Dick Butkus used to blitz out of the 4-3 for the Chicago Bears. Lester Hayes used to play bump-and-run from it for the Oakland/L.A. Raiders. Nothing new. But for now, having lain dormant in the college game, this defense, reborn as the press, qualifies as innovation.
The godfather of the press is—are you ready?—former NFL coach Buddy Ryan, whose famed "46" defense, which he created when he was defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, carried that team to the 1986 Super Bowl title. Follow the history: On Nov. 4, 1989, Arizona State rolled up 493 yards of total offense in beating Washington 34-32. "It seemed like they had 1,000 yards on us," recalls Jim Lambright, who was then the Huskies' defensive coordinator and has been their coach since 1993. "We blitzed players in that game, but they had a quick answer every time, with the three-step drop by the quarterback [Paul Justin, who threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns]. It was the beginning of the West Coast offense. There was no way we could stay in our basic five-man front, zone coverage and not get picked apart."
It was happening throughout the college game: Sophisticated offenses were ringing up big numbers while passive zone defenses such as Washington's let quarterbacks scorch them. The solution grew from Lambright's memory of Ryan's 46 defense. "We stole from Buddy, undoubtedly," says Lambright.
"The 46 is basically an eight-man front with corners in man [single] coverage and a centerfielder [a roaming free safety]. It gives you a chance to have a numbers advantage over the offensive line." Two years later Washington blitzed and eight-manned its way to a 12-0 season and a piece of the national title.
As the Huskies were growing into the Bears West, another development was unfolding in Florida that would help shape what has become today's press. First Miami (under former coaches Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson) and then Florida State injected speed into their defenses as never before, taking high school safeties and making them linebackers, taking high school linebackers and making them defensive ends. The Hurricanes and the Seminoles soon had blitzers who came at the quarterback with stunning swiftness and defensive backs fast enough to survive in man-to-man coverage. Rival coaches saw the opportunities that opened up if a team had speed on defense. "I credit Miami with a lot of this," says Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride. "They beat us in bowls every year [1984, '89 and '92] with speed that we just didn't have."
Other programs watched and copied, borrowing from Washington's scheme and Miami's and Florida State's legs. Kansas State, with intense, young defensive coordinator Bob Stoops (remember the name), went to the press in '93; the Wildcats' once moribund program won 28 games in three seasons. Arizona's "double-eagle flex" held opponents to 47.6 rushing yards per game in 1992 and '93. Virginia Tech's staff visited Washington in the spring of '92, switched to an eight-man front in '93 and won 31 of its next 41 games. Last season the Hokies went 10-2 and led the nation in rushing defense (77.4 yards per game).
Most telling of all, two of the most memorable bowl games of the '90s—both for the national championship—were dominated by pressing defenses: In the 1993 Sugar Bowl, Alabama held Miami to 48 yards on the ground and harassed desperate Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta into 24-for-56 passing and three interceptions. Last Jan. 2 in the Fiesta Bowl, Nebraska, inspired by Miami's earlier success against the Cornhuskers, sacked Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel seven times and forced him into 11 hurries while holding the Gators to minus-28 yards on the ground.