IUP FOOTBALL: Once a gimmick offense, teams now rely on the Spread
So much for three yards and a cloud of dust.
Most college football offenses these days prefer to get in the shotgun, spread the opponent and scan the defensive line for blocking cues in a hurry-up, fast-break scheme that makes nearly everyone dizzy.
About a decade after the Spread offense was first introduced as a zany gimmick, college teams across the land have adopted it for a number of reasons. It’s fun for the fans to watch, it takes the pressure off a defense to keep the game close, and it makes recruiting big, burly linemen and bruising running backs an antiquated philosophy.
In the NCAA Division II level, and specifically the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, some version of the Spread or a shotgun offense can be seen in the vast majority of teams, so it’s not so much of a trick anymore.
“I think people now are starting to want to use the entire width of the football field,” said Edinboro coach Scott Browning. “They want to spread the field out. A lot of people describe it as basketball on grass. You’re trying to create mismatches out there. ... It’s not like the old days when you had to line up and knock people off the football.”
College football tends to follow fads, with offenses such as the Wing-T and Run-and-Shoot coming and going in a short number of years. But the Spread Option has lasted maybe longer than most would have thought, and evidence points to its popularity growing rapidly.
California coach Mike Kellar said the Spread hasn’t changed what teams do, only how they do it.
“The philosophy is always the same,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how you achieve that philosophy.”
Kellar suggests that the game plan most teams hope to use involves running the ball effectively enough that the other team’s offense is kept off the field. And for Browning, the Spread helps do that because its blocking schemes aren’t radically different from another offense of years gone by.
“It’s triple-option football, just out of the shotgun,” Browning said. “If you really look at it, we’re back to running the Triple Option.”
Browning said his team will veer a little bit away from the Spread this year. There will still be shotgun concepts that Edinboro has run the last few years, but he wants to get more back to basics, which is an interesting idea because the team that won the PSAC last season did it without running a single play from the Spread.
When Curt Cignetti was lured away from Alabama to coach at IUP in 2011, where he had been the wide receivers coach for four seasons, he brought with him the philosophy of winning games by bludgeoning teams with a physical traditional I-formation offense that featured tight ends and fullbacks.
It wasn’t a new concept, just one Cignetti had seen work first-hand.
“(Alabama) had a 29-game winning streak and we won a national championship with our offense,” Cignetti said. “So when things make sense to you, and you see the plan and the results, it’s hard not to do it the same way. It made a lot of sense to me, and that’s what I had to do.”
Other teams have noticed what the Crimson Hawks are doing.
“It’s a great way of playing,” Kellar said. “I want to play that way. It’s their nich?.”
“I guarantee you that a lot of teams have been looking at a lot of IUP tape this offseason,” Cignetti said. “We’ve got a big Bull’s-eye on us.”
Seton Hill coach Isaac Collins wishes he could run an offense similar to IUP’s. But he and his staff will use some Spread concepts because his background as a defensive coordinator opened his eyes to the possibilities.
“If I had my choice, we’d be just like IUP,” he said. “We’d line up with a fullback and pound you. But I’m a realist and I’ve been a defensive coordinator for a long time. So I know the problems you can put a good defense in by spreading them out.”
The reason that more teams don’t model themselves after a program like IUP is that I-formation power football relies on big, physical linemen, tough running backs and a group of receivers who can block downfield. Those are three things that are in short supply at the Division II level.
And because a lot of high school programs have begin running concepts of the Spread, recruiting players has changed to the point where it’s easier to find an athletic quarterback who can run the ball than it is to find a 6-foot-5 gunslinger with a cannon for an arm.
“Your quarterback has got to be athletic,” Browning said. “He’s got to be intelligent. He’s got to be able to do it all. But I don’t think you necessarily need a big arm. It helps, but it isn’t necessary.”
Cignetti views recruiting a quarterback differently, but that’s because he doesn’t use the Spread.
“What you’re looking for in a quarterback is a guy who can get the ball from Point A to Point B as quickly and as accurately as possible,” he said, suggesting things haven’t changed that much over the years. “He needs to be able to make good decisions and have enough athleticism to escape some pressure. And he needs those quarterback intangibles, too.”
What can be difficult is finding a quarterback who can run your scout team and emulate an opposing offense that does not run some aspect of the Spread.
Browning knows this first hand. Last year, he saw it in practice, when he asked his scout-team quarterback to get under center to take a snap.
“He looked at me and said, “I have never taken a snap from center in my life,” Browning said. “That’s what you’re getting now.”
For the teams that do run the Spread, there has been one important factor that has caught a lot of coaches’ attention.
“I think the biggest change in college football the last eight or 10 years is the number of plays people are running,” said California’s Kellar. “That’s why numbers are getting more and more skewed. It used to be that when we’d play fast, the other team would play slow. But now, both teams are playing fast. It’s like watching an NBA Finals game between the Lakers and the Celtics in the 1980s. … So we all play fast and we all get more plays and the numbers get skewed that way. You get more yards per game because there are more reps.”
For evidence of that idea, just look at PSAC statistics from the past 10 years.
In 2012, Shippensburg led the league in yards per game, at an astounding 529.9. That figure was also good enough to be tops in all of NCAA Division II. What’s odd about it is that the Raiders managed to average more yards per game than anyone else while running 1,033 plays, by far the most in the league.
The 529.9 yards per game and 1,033 plays run are the most in the PSAC in the past decade.
That’s enough to make Collins shake his head. In his team’s first year in the league, the defensive-minded Collins must find a way to slow down the likes of California, Edinboro, Gannon and Clarion, four schools that like to spread out defenses.
“Just being able to match up with teams is key,” Collins said. “You can’t be old school and line up with four down linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs because they’re getting into empty sets and having four or five receivers. So when you’re having to match their personnel and doing it as quickly as they do it, it puts a lot of stress on your defense. It limits what you can do defensively.”
The Spread, or shotgun offenses like it, seem to be here to stay. This is an era of big offenses and big scores, and teams have adapted to it, whether they like it or not.
But Kellar insists wide-open offenses haven’t really changed the game that much because the thought process behind it is the same as if a team was still running the I-formation.
“You still win the same way,” Kellar said. “For all that stuff that teams do, a lot of it is (garbage) because you win games by running the ball and by stopping the run. If you look at a team like Oregon, what they do is they really run the hell out of the ball.”
That’s what Cignetti’s Crimson Hawks did last season, to the tune of 259.3 yards per game on the ground.
Cignetti likes the simplified approach, and that’s why IUP won’t be using the Spread anytime soon.
“When you can have the quarterback hand the ball to the running back, and he runs into the end zone, well, that’s the easiest way to do it,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to call plays then.”