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Can't Beat the Spread
August 11, 2008
The hottest offense thrives on speed, stretching the defense across the field and exploiting mismatches all over. It's near unstoppable, and more and more coaches are converting
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August 11, 2008

Can't Beat The Spread

The hottest offense thrives on speed, stretching the defense across the field and exploiting mismatches all over. It's near unstoppable, and more and more coaches are converting

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HE IS THE progenitor, the Kevin Bacon, the fountainhead of the spread. While Davis popularized the run-and-shoot, it was Rodriguez who begat its most influential offspring. Sitting at his desk in Schembechler Hall in April, he looked more than a little careworn (and this was the day before his offense could barely get out of its own way in the spring game).

If past is prologue, the Wolverines will grind their offensive gears in RichRod's first season. After that, stand back. In 1990, as a 27-year-old coach at Glenville (W.Va.) State, Rodriguez decided it might be fun to run a two-minute offense for the entire game. "I figured, Why not?" he says. "There were 500 people in the stands, and half of 'em were my relatives."

To make life easier on his quarterback, who stood all of 5'11", Rodriguez put him in the shotgun and commenced throwing the ball all over the field. That, in turn, "emptied the box, [opening] running seams all over the place."

After winning four straight West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles, Rodriguez rolled out his nascent spread-option as the offensive coordinator at Tulane; so atrocious was the offense at the start, he recalls, "I don't think we got a first down in our spring game. One of our coaches let one of the female trainers call some defenses, and we still couldn't get a first down."

Take heart, Michigan fans! In his second year the Green Wave went 12--0. In 1999 Rodriguez followed coach Tommy Bowden to Clemson, where they inherited quarterback Woody Dantzler, a Pat White precursor who rushed for 1,028 yards and threw for 1,871 in leading the Tigers to a 9--3 record in 2000.

Rodriguez's coaching colleagues were taking notice. One of his first visitors to Death Valley was an assistant from the staff of Northwestern coach Randy Walker, who was a buddy of Rodriguez's. "They took everything verbatim," Rodriguez recalls. "I thought they'd at least change the signals."

There was Northwestern in November 2000, piling up 654 yards of total offense in a 54--51 upset of Michigan. "After that," says Rodriguez of his offense, "it was out there."

Rodriguez was hired by West Virginia in late 2000, but he continued to be a generous host. Bowling Green's new coach, none other than Meyer, was concerned that other MAC teams had better talent than his squad and was looking for an equalizer. Another visitor to Morgantown was Chip Kelly, the youthful offensive coordinator at I-AA New Hampshire. "We were a down-and-dirty, I-formation, smash-mouth team," he recalls. Finding his offense short on natural fullbacks, Kelly had to try something. But swapping out the fullback for a third receiver made him wonder, How would the Wildcats run the ball? "Everything back then was a one-back draw," says Kelly. "So we did some investigating, and [ Rodriguez's] zone-read play gave us some answers."

The rise of the spread has resulted in a faster and—unless one is a fan of the fullback isolation play—more entertaining game. The most successful spreads feature ridiculously talented, multiple-threat athletes who may well siphon Heisman votes from their quarterbacks.

At Texas Tech that guy is sophomore Michael Crabtree, who broke every significant freshman Division I-A receiving record last season, then won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top pass catcher. At 6'3", 214 pounds, with a 34-inch vertical, he has the size to bully smaller corners and the hops to outleap all of them.

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