Meyer, Herman Plan to Bring ‘Power Spread’ to Big Ten
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Big Ten Conference is no stranger to spread football.
The conference has seen Joe Tiller’s “basketball on grass” offense, which often befuddled opposing defenses during Tiller’s decade at Purdue, and the zone-read attacks of Rich Rodriguez at Michigan and Ron Zook at Illinois.
Even Randy Walker implemented a spread attack at Northwestern before his untimely death in 2006, but the conference has never seen anything quite like the offensive attack Urban Meyer brought with him to Ohio State.
Photo by Jim Davidson
If Rodriguez is the professor of his particular brand of offense — a no huddle, run-oriented version of the spread — then Meyer is a star pupil; not only of Rodriguez, but of a number of spread architects around the country.
“Nowadays, most offenses have some form of the zone read,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.
“I think we do it about as good, if not better than everybody else in the country. We’re so focused on it, we believe in it so much, our staff is aligned. Our kids believe in it, and it is a physical, physical run play for us.”
That might be the biggest difference between the offense Meyer plans to run in Columbus this fall and the one Rodriguez ran in Morgantown and Ann Arbor. Unlike Tiller, and some of the other believers in the spread offense, Rodriguez ran a run-first attack at Michigan.
The Wolverines ran the ball 1,503 times in his three seasons at UM (an average of more than 500 times a year), compared to just 910 passes. That means Michigan was running the ball more than 62 percent of the time out of the spread, which was down even from Rodriguez’ tenure at West Virginia.
Like Rodriguez, Meyer and Herman believe speed at the skill position is the single most critical aspect when it comes to changing the numbers advantage on the football field. It allows the offense to stretch the defense thinner than it is typically capable of going.
“I think it's an offense based on using the entire width and length of the football field,” Herman said.
“The field is 120 yards long and 54 yards wide. And in our opinion the defense only has 11 human beings to cover that much grass, and so we're going to use space and numbers to our advantage.”
That doesn’t mean they are going to abandon the inside running game, which has been a staple of Big Ten football, at least among the elite teams, predating even Woody Hayes and the “Robust T” offense of yesteryear.
“There is no finesse in our run game,” Herman said emphatically.
“We may be in the shotgun, but there is absolutely no finesse in our run game.”
That was something the Ohio State players had to learn for themselves after Meyer took over and hired Herman, and former Kansas offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, to help him run the offense in Columbus.
“Our running game, the way we attack, is a lot different than what most people have seen,” tight end Jake Stoneburner said.
“It’s spread, but we still have some power run plays. Even though it’s not traditional power, we still have a power running game.”
Meyer has worked hard to perfect his offense over the years, but it was already deadly even in its earliest stages. After six years as the wide receivers coach under Earle Bruce at Colorado State and five more at Notre Dame — first under Holtz and then Bob Davie — Meyer unveiled his heterogeneous offense to the tune of 30 points a game as a first-year head coach at Bowling Green in 2001.
In his second season, Meyer’s offense averaged more than 40 points a game, finishing among the nation’s best in scoring while posting 72 points in a win over Ohio University in week four.
That victory came on the heals of two blowout wins over Missouri and Kansas, a pair of teams from the Big 12. That team averaged 219 yards per game on the ground, despite the fact he did not have a 1,000-yard rusher in his backfield.
Tailback Brandon Warfield (976) nearly topped the 1,000-yard mark in Meyer’s first season at Utah, but it was during his second year with the Utes that Meyer’s offense was officially put on full display.
With future No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith running the show, Meyer’s team averaged 45.3 points per game and ranked third nationally in scoring in 2004. Smith threw for nearly 3,000 yards and rushed for more than 600 more, as the Utes went a perfect 12-0 that season.
They beat Texas A&M by 20, Arizona by 17, Utah State by 42, North Carolina by 30, Colorado State by 32, BYU by 30 and Pitt by 28 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Even with all his success at Bowling Green and Utah, Meyer’s detractors said his style would never work in the SEC, where defenses were simply too big and too fast.
Not only did his six Florida teams total more rushing yards – 15,109 – than every SEC team during Meyer’s six-year stretch in Gainesville, but the Gators (372) also scored 66 more touchdowns than any other team in the conference.
Arkansas was second with 306 and LSU was third with 305 touchdowns during Meyer’s tenure at Florida, and the Gators led the SEC in rushing touchdowns (185) and passing scores (154) over that six-year span.
Including his Bowling Green and Utah teams, Meyer has had six teams ranked among the Top 3 in their respective conference in rushing, three teams in the Top 3 in passing, and six times his teams have been Top 3 in total offense including four teams – 2004 Utah and 2007, 2008 and 2009 Florida – that led the conference.
Nearly a third of Meyer’s victories as a head coach – 32 of 104 – have been decisive wins by 30-or-more points, and 14 of those wins have come by 40-or-more points.
There is no guarantee Meyer will have the same type of immediate success at Ohio State that he had at each of his three previous stops, but it’s hard to argue against a guy whose teams have scored 40 points or more in almost half (53) of the games he has coached (127) at three different schools in three different conferences.
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