Once the Wolverines' season began—with a 27-3 drubbing of then No. 8 Colorado—the 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.
Bowl of salad, bottle of dressing. That's Price's theme. He is sitting in his office on the third floor of crumbling Bohler Gym while a December snowstorm blows outside his one small window. "The offense is like a big bowl of salad," he says, working his hands as if auditioning for his own gig on the Food Network. "The original Elway stuff is the lettuce. We've added a few tomatoes from Brigham Young by watching them, some radishes from Miami [Hurricanes coach Dennis Erickson also ran the one-back after learning it from Jack Elway], and then me—I guess I'm the house dressing."
The basic set is four wide-outs—a split end and a slot receiver on each side—and 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."