Aggressive defenses hate the spread. Michigan's savvy veteran unit spent a long week preparing for Purdue after facing run-oriented opponents Notre Dame, Rice, Syracuse and Wisconsin. The Boilermakers, who would throw 52 passes in Ann Arbor, presented a different set of challenges to the Wolverines. "You take a lot fewer chances against an offense like that," Michigan nose-tackle Rob Renes said after beating Purdue. "You have to make sure you're in the right place, doing your job, on every single play. And you've got to realize that they're going to make some plays."
The Wolverines countered the Boilermakers' multiple-wideout attack by using Terrell, the wide receiver, at defensive back. That allowed starting comers Todd Howard and James Whitley to cover Purdue's slot receivers, reducing the type of killer mismatch—such as a strong safety or a linebacker on a wideout—that drives the spread. Still, the Boilermakers were behind only 21-12 in the third quarter. "I'd rather bang with Wisconsin 11 weeks a year than go through this," said Renes.
The spread is more than simply a reaction to the hot defense of the 1990s. It's also a shortcut for programs seeking instant credibility. Mumme and Couch took long-moribund Kentucky to a bowl game last year. At Louisville, former Utah State coach John L. Smith, who had coached under Erickson at Idaho, installed the spread when he arrived at the start of the 1998 season, and the Cardinals went on to lead the nation in total offense, with 559.6 yards per game. No stories, though, are more arresting than those of Purdue and Oklahoma, where coaches have used the spread not only to beat the press and hit the ground running but also to sucker-punch conferences that had long believed that a wide-open passing attack couldn't fly in the bad weather of the heartland.
Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller learned the spread at Wyoming, where in his last year, 1996, the Cowboys ranked first in the country in passing. "The [spread] gave us a chance to be competitive right away because people in the Big Ten hadn't seen it," he says. "It's also a great equalizer because you don't need great personnel at every position." For example, linemen must be nimble but not huge and powerful, and the tight end needs to catch only short passes.
The quarterback, however, must be superb. "If you don't have a good quarterback, the spread doesn't help a lot," says UNLV coach John Robinson. Purdue has Brees, who threw for 39 touchdowns a year ago. He was only 20 for 49 against Michigan, but his receivers dropped at least 11 passes.
After Stoops took the Oklahoma job last December, he hired Mike Leach, who had worked under Mumme at Kentucky, as his offensive coordinator. "We had a very hard time with Kentucky when I was at Florida," says Stoops. "Kentucky had decent talent—especially at quarterback, of course—but we had more talent than they did, yet they still made plays. I also liked the fact that the spread would make us different in the Big 12." To run his offense, Stoops recruited junior college quarterback Josh Heupel. On defense, Stoops still presses.
Michigan has taken slowly to the spread. The Wolverines used it in small doses two years ago, usually when Heisman Trophy-winning cornerback Charles Woodson was in the game on offense. Last year they added a few more snaps, and this year they're deploying the spread as many as 20 times a game. "We're using it occasionally on first down because defenses are expecting us to line up and run it at them," says Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. "It makes us less predictable."
The spread has more bonuses than Ricky Williams's contract. Like fast-break basketball, it attracts recruits who dislike your father's brand of football. "Look, this is a fun offense to play, especially for a quarterback but also for anybody who likes to score and play a little more wide open," says Brady, the Michigan signal-caller. The spread keeps teams—and fans—in games that might otherwise be considered lost. On Sept. 25 in a duel of spread offenses Oklahoma trailed Louisville 21-14 in the third quarter, yet won 42-21. "Some teams didn't feel they could score enough points to play catch-up," says Smith, the Louisville coach. "By throwing it you have a chance. It's not like you get down 14 points and you're out of a game."
The downside? Empty backfields, spread sets and timing patterns can expose a quarterback to heavy hits, many of them after he has released the ball. Danny Wuerffel, who led Florida to the national championship and won the Heisman Trophy in 1996, was pounded by teams such as Florida State and Nebraska because he was immobile and Florida runs deeper patterns than many spread teams. Gators coach Steve Spurrier simply accepted that a quarterback in his offense must stand in and be tough. Shaun King, who ran a spread for Tulane last year and now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Brees are both quick-footed and seldom get sacked.
More and more nonbelievers are being converted to the spread—at least until opposing defenses adjust again. Alabama was late to make the change. Just two days before a Sept. 25 win over Arkansas (and less than a week after an embarrassing loss to Louisiana Tech and its spread), Tide coach Mike DuBose freed Stubbs to amp his offense after Stubbs had begged for months to take advantage of the talents of Alexander, Zow and wideout Freddie Milons. "Let's open it up," DuBose said. "Call it any way you want it. Spread 'em out."