Five Things Urban Can Learn from Rich Rod’s Failure
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Ohio State received a commitment from speedy wideout Taivon Jacobs last month, it received mixed responses from across the Big Ten.
Jacobs is a bit of an unknown in the recruiting world, but he was putting together a pretty impressive list of offers before his phone call to Urban Meyer on that fateful Thursday morning.
Maryland was pushing strong for the 5-11 speedster out of District Heights. So was most of the ACC, but Ohio State coaches seemed overjoyed at the prospects of adding another burner to join Jalin Marshall in the 2013 class.
Jacobs is only a 3-star prospect (2-star by Scout.com), but he reportedly ran a 4.32 in the 40-yard dash. He’s a track star who played receiver, running back and defensive back for Suitland High School last year. He caught 35 passes for 921 yards and 13 touchdowns, while also returning several kickoffs for scores—just the kind of player Meyer loves on offense.
So did Rich Rodriguez.
Now there are some wondering if, in an attempt to change the game offensively in the Big Ten, Meyer is headed down the same path that landed Rodriguez at Arizona.
To be fair, Rodriguez did not have Meyer’s proven track record for success. It only makes sense that if it worked so well in the SEC, it will work in the Big Ten—but Meyer won’t have Tim Tebow leading the way at Ohio State.
For that, we take a look at what Urban can learn from RichRod’s failure in Ann Arbor.
1. Defense Wins Championships
This was the No. 1 thing Rodriguez never seemed to understand. It seemed like he thought he could waltz right in to the Big Ten and ignore more than a hundred years of history by simply outscoring everyone with a high-powered offense.
It took Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison exactly one year to remind everyone that defense wins, especially in the Big Ten. The Wolverines’ offense still packed a punch last season—they needed every bit of it to end their drought against the Buckeyes—but it was Mattison’s defense that turned a 7-6 football team into a BCS bowl winner.
During Rodriguez’ three years at Michigan, the Wolverines improved from 67th in total offense his first year to eighth in total offense in 2010, his final season in Ann Arbor. The defense, however, dropped from 58th in year one to 110th in year three.
The Wolverines were plenty good enough on offense to win games, but their abysmal defense made them a .500 football team in 2010, one year before Hoke turned them into an 11-win team.
2. It Starts Up Front
One reason Meyer was so successful at Florida was the fact he seems to understand that it’s all about the guys in the trenches. This was something Rodriguez never quite seemed to get during his time at Michigan.
He focused too much of his attention on loading up with speed at the skill position, and ignored the foundation of every good football team at any level. Even when Michigan’s offense was starting to show signs of how explosive it could be in 2010, the Wolverines struggled in Big Ten play any time they came up against an opposing defense with a staunch front line.
The fact Rodriguez had one of his best linemen, Justin Boren, walk away from the program to become a two-year starter at Michigan’s archrival shows exactly why he was not successful at the school up north.
3. Speed Kills, But Not Always in the Red Zone
This is one area where Urban Meyer could probably use a little refresher as he prepares to embark on his first season in the Big Ten. Meyer’s offense is predicated on stretching the field in every direction.
He and Tom Herman want to use the full length and width of the field to create mismatches in space, but there is only so much space available in the red zone. It becomes impossible to stretch the field vertically, which leaves defenses to focus more on the horizontal aspect of Meyer’s spread attack.
At Florida, he overcame this with a bulldozing quarterback who refused to be taken down short of the goal line. He also had a dangerous playmaker in Percy Harvin, who could beat a linebacker to the sideline or breakthrough the arm tackle of a safety at the two-yard line.
Without Tebow, Meyer will have to get more creative. He inherited some big backs who can move the pile in the red zone, which was something Rodriguez did not have at Michigan. As a result, the Wolverines, who were 25th best in the country at scoring in 2010, converted only 77 percent of their red zone chances. That was good for 92nd in the country that year—which was by far Rodriguez’s best in Ann Arbor.
4. Don’t Forget Special Teams
Another reason the Wolverines struggled to score in the red zone during RichRod’s tenure was the fact he paid very little attention to special teams—or at least it seemed that way.
In 2010, the Wolverines had the eighth best total offense in the country and the 25th best scoring offense, but they ranked dead last in the country in field goal percentage. Their two kickers, Brendan Gibbons and Seth Broekhuizen, combined to make just 4-of-14 field goal tries that season—none over 37 yards.
They also accounted for only seven touchbacks all season, and this was a running trend throughout his tenure at Michigan. He had such little faith in Gibbons and Broekhuizen that he publically called them out in September by offering open tryouts to any Michigan student in good academic standing who could kick field goals.
Contrast that to Meyer’s 2008 Florida team, which ranked No. 1 in the country in field goal percentage and No. 13 in punting average. Meyer’s six Gator teams blocked a total of 32 kicks (21 punts, eight field goals and three extra points): never failing to block multiple punts in a season and blocking multiple field goals in five of six seasons.
5. Protect the Quarterback
This is the one area where Meyer may have the most in common with Rodriguez, because, well, part of Meyer’s offensive philosophy comes directly from Arizona’s new head coach.
Rodriguez is considered by many to be the father—or at least the goofy uncle—of the zone-read offense we see across America in today’s college football. That doesn’t mean no one had done it before, but Rodriguez really perfected it during his time at West Virginia. So much so, that Meyer actually met with Rodriguez when he was the offensive coordinator at Clemson to glean some ideas for his own system—one that would eventually take college football by storm in the early 21st Century.
One of the reasons Rodriguez never turned the corner at Michigan was the fact his best player couldn’t stay on the field when it mattered most. The Wolverines were 5-0 to star the 2010 season, and Denard Robinson looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate.
He ended up having a pretty good statistical sophomore season, but Rodriguez won just two of his last eight games in Ann Arbor as Robinson was forced to come in and out of games because of injury.
That was something Meyer never had to deal with at Florida. Tebow was built like a diesel truckcompared to Robinson’s sports car. He never carried the ball as many times in a single season as Robinson has in each of the last two, but Tebow racked up an incredible 692 rushing attempts in Gainesville.
Meyer has been blessed with another talented quarterback at Ohio State, but that formula won’t work with Braxton Miller. He is more Denard Robinson than Tim Tebow.
At 6-2, 210 pounds, Miller likely won’t survive 700 carries over the next three years. He has a history of injuries, and while it’s unfair to say he’s fragile, there has to be some reservation from Meyer when it comes to his sophomore quarterback.
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