Jack Elway and Dennis Erickson weren’t trying to revolutionize college football in the late 1970s. They were just trying to win a football game.
It was 1979 and Elway was the head coach at San Jose State. Erickson was his offensive coordinator.
The Spartans had lost several of their running backs to injuries, so Elway decided to borrow an offensive scheme he had first seen at Granada Hills, Calif., the high school where his son, John, played quarterback.
He lined up just one running back behind his quarterback. He sent three, four, sometimes five wide receivers out on every play.
The spread offense — so named because it spreads defenses out — was introduced on a national stage and now, 29 years later, it has changed the way college football is played.
“It’s made a big difference,” Erickson said.
Division I-AA Appalachian State used the spread to go into the Big House in September and stun Michigan.
Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel used the spread to finish fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting and nearly lead Missouri to a berth in the national championship game.
The spread turned West Virginia into a national power, Hawaii into an undefeated Sugar Bowl team and enabled Florida quarterback Tim Tebow to become the first player in NCAA history to run for 20 touchdowns and throw for 20 scores in the same season.
Oh, and that new offense Auburn introduced in Tuesday’s Chick-fil-A bowl?
Yup, the spread.
“You’re going to see more and more of it in this day and age,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
Schools like Appalachian State, Hawaii and yes, even West Virginia, don’t routinely sign the physically dominant players that show up on the doorstep of traditional powers like Ohio State, LSU or USC.
The spread offense, however, isn’t predicated on size. It’s built for speed and deception. And it’s far easier to find a quick high school athlete than it is the 6-foot-4, 235-pound linebacker.
Appalachian State, for example, didn’t have one player on its roster who was recruited by Michigan. But its team speed was so much greater the Wolverines looked like they were running in wet cement.
“You can use the 5-6, 5-7, 5-8 kid who can run like heck but isn’t being recruited by the big schools,” Erickson said. “It’s an opportunity for smaller schools to be successful.”
What the spread does is create mismatches for an offense. Line up five wide receivers, and one of them might have to be covered by a linebacker. A defense stretched from sideline to sideline also has a more difficult time stopping the run game because there are fewer players devoted to it.
In addition, the spread benefits smaller quarterbacks like the 6-foot Daniel. He lines up in the shotgun on every play, giving him a better view of the defense’s coverage than if he took the snap and dropped back.
“Size doesn’t really matter when you’re running that offense,” said Oklahoma defensive end Auston English, who saw more than his share of spread offenses this season in Missouri, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Tulsa and Texas Tech. “You see a lot of small guys running it and speedy guys who can make plays with their feet. It gives offenses so many one-on-one matchups that it’s hard for defenses to be better at every position.”
No program, with the possible exception of Hawaii, is a greater testament to the spread’s success than West Virginia, which will play Oklahoma in Wednesday’s Fiesta Bowl.
Rich Rodriguez, who recently left the Mountaineers to take the Michigan coaching job, used the spread-option — he incorporated some aspects of the option offense into the spread — to win at least eight games in five of his six seasons at West Virginia.
His predecessor, Don Nehlen, won eight games or more just nine times in his 21-year coaching career.
“We make people cover the whole field,” said quarterback Pat White, who epitomizes the new breed, someone who can run the ball (3,356 career rushing yards) and throw it (4,031 career passing yards). “It gives them fits.”
The spread is, if you’ll excuse the expression, spreading beyond college football.
Scottsdale Notre Dame won the 4A Division II title this season with the spread; Cave Creek Cactus Shadows threw the ball all over the yard to capture the 4A-II title last year.
The spread will come full circle next fall. Erickson said he plans to incorporate more four- and five-wide receiver sets in ASU’s offense.
“Defenses will eventually catch up, but right now it works,” Erickson said.
Just ask Michigan.
Listen to Scott Bordow every Monday at 3:25 p.m. on The Fan (1060 AM) with Bob Kemp.