The Pitt defense thought it had the play snuffed out. As Utah's Alex Smith took a shotgun snap and began running an option to his left, defensive end Keith Hill, linebacker Malcolm Postell and safety Tez Morris swarmed toward receiver Paris Warren, who'd gone in motion and, the Panthers figured, was about to take a pitch from Smith. At the same time, strongside linebacker H.B. Blades closed in on Smith from behind. There was just one problem: No one had kept tabs on Utes running back Marty Johnson, who was breaking from the backfield toward the line of scrimmage.
Shown in super-slow motion, the video of the play captures the panicked look on Morris's face the instant he realized what was about to happen. Smith looked back to his right and flicked a shovel pass to Johnson, who raced through a gap and went 18 yards untouched into the end zone. That score put Utah up 21--0 in the third quarter of last January's Fiesta Bowl, which the Utes would win 35--7.
In four weeks of practice leading up to the game, Pitt's defense had prepared for that play and routinely stopped the shovel pass at the line of scrimmage. "[But] the speed with which [ Utah] ran it made it very hard to defend," says Panthers defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. "I can remember a number of times our staff commented, 'I don't know how you prepare for this team in a seven-day game week.'"
As the Fiesta Bowl showed, even four weeks wasn't enough.
over the last seven months coaches from high school to Division I have studied the spread-option offense that carried Utah to a 12--0 season, helped Smith become the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL draft and landed Utes coach Urban Meyer, who first conceived the offense four years ago while he was Bowling Green's coach, a seven-year, $14 million deal from Florida. Meyer's exotic hybrid--running the option out of a spread formation with the quarterback in the shotgun and multiple receivers in motion--terrorized not only Mountain West foes but also teams from BCS conferences. Utah churned out 582 yards of offense in a 41--21 victory over Texas A&M, 669 yards in a 46--16 win against North Carolina and 467 in the Fiesta Bowl blowout.
And while the term spread offense usually invokes images of pass-happy quarterbacks throwing out of five-receiver sets, last season Utah averaged nearly as many yards on the ground (236.1 per game) as it did through the air (263.7). "No one else really runs [the spread] like we do," says Meyer, 41, whose affable, confident demeanor recalls an earlier offensive wizard at Florida: Steve Spurrier. "When we first put a pencil to it [at Bowling Green], we were just trying to win some games at a place where we were a little undermanned. We never envisioned it would be the talk of the country four years later."
In the wake of his success at Bowling Green (a combined 17--6 in 2001 and '02) and Utah (22--2, two Mountain West titles and a school-best No. 4 national ranking), Meyer says he got calls in the off-season from coaches at nearly 20 Division I-A schools looking for more information about the offense. Texas A&M, which had quarterback Reggie McNeal running some of Utah's schemes last season, dispatched a team of assistant coaches to Gainesville to learn more from Meyer and his staff, as did Virginia Tech. Mike Sanford, Meyer's offensive coordinator at Utah, is the new coach at UNLV and is installing the spread option there. Oregon, Purdue and Missouri have added components of the spread option to their playbooks, as has seven-time Division III champion Mount Union. Even college football's alltime winningest coach, Florida State's Bobby Bowden, is interested. In the spring he invited Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon--Meyer's offensive coordinator in 2001 and '02--to Tallahassee to educate the Seminoles' staff on the scheme that Brandon helped devise and still runs.
"Around 1981 or '82 I asked [then San Jose State coach] Jack Elway, who was the first guy I had ever seen run the one-back spread, 'What do you think would be the perfect offense?'" says Purdue coach Joe Tiller, who this season will mix in some option plays with his spread to better exploit the mobility of new starting quarterback Brandon Kirsch. "He said, 'Run this spread stuff, along with some veer option football.' Well, don't look now, but 20 years later, what are we seeing?"
It's not as if Meyer reinvented the wheel. Nearly all the elements of his offense--the spread formations, the shotgun reads, the option pitches--were plucked from somewhere else. No team, however, had ever mixed them quite the way Utah did last season, when the Utes lined up almost exclusively in the shotgun with one running back or an empty backfield, and with four or five receivers (one of whom was often an H-back who went in motion and slid into the backfield). The base play is a zone read in which the quarterback takes the snap and, upon determining the pursuit of the defensive end in front of the running back, hands off to the back or tucks it and runs. On a speed-option play the quarterback runs along the line, then keeps the ball or pitches back to the running back or motion receiver. Then there is Meyer's updated version of the triple option, such as the Fiesta Bowl touchdown play, in which the QB can keep the ball, pitch it or toss a shovel pass ahead to a back or slot receiver (Warren, against Pitt).
As if all those possibilities aren't enough to tax a defense, the quarterback can audible to virtually any offensive play out of nearly any formation by shifting the backs or receivers before the snap. The reliance on quick-release passes also limits the ability of defenses to blitz. "You've got to spread out and defend the passing game but also stay option-sound," says Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione. "If you get overloaded to one side and don't adjust, you're suddenly empty against something coming from the other side."