Monday, September 17, 2007

Enter the Spread

“The spread doesn’t work in the SEC”

I wish Florida had an SEC title for each time I have heard/read that.

How anybody made that assessment is a mystery, because before Saturday Meyer and Mullen had yet to run the offense they truly wanted against an SEC opponent.

After Saturday?

The Spread – 1
SEC – 0

In order for Meyer’s version of the spread to be effective, a quarterback that is a running-option threat is entirely necessary (see Alex Smith). Chris Leak was not that quarterback.

That is not to knock Chris. He is a great young man, with the hardware to prove it. But in the last 2 years, the Gator offense has been a hybrid with spread elements.

I don’t think I can sum up the essence of Florida’s offense any better than the Sunday Morning Quarterback did in his most recent namesake column;

Salient part –

Friday, I vowed to keep an eye on the Gators' offensive creativity, which was overrated for the better part of Urban Meyers' first two seasons but started to show in the stretch run to last year's championship. The versatility was blatantly obvious to a blind man Saturday: with Tebow, the defense has no choice but to respect the middle, even if - especially if - the rest of the speed players are spread out all over the place; his presence alone gives UF a power running game, essentially an extra player in the backfield when a simple hesitation, one little step forward, suffices for play-action without sacrificing the running back in the fake. You hear this rhetoric all the time, but with Tebow's arm, bullish running mentality and stockpiles of speed all around him, this offense as much as any I can remember really does force defenses to cover the entire field. This is a luxury very few quarterbacks can provide, and, when it comes to using Percy Harvin as the anti-Tebow dagger in the running game, very few receivers, too.

The SMQ’s comments beg this question –

Who was the Gators “featured” running back on Saturday?

Can’t come up with a name?

That’s because there wasn’t one.

Eight Florida players had rushing yardage on Saturday, with the leading rushers being Harvin (75 yards) and Tebow (61 yards). Kestahn Moore, the only player remotely resembling a running back in Florida’s offense against Tennessee, had 48 yards on 11 touches. Also carrying the ball were Jarred Fayson, Cam Newton, Brandon James, Chris Rainey and Chevon Walker.

Notably of that list – the only upper classman is Moore, a junior.

Saturday we finally got to see the Meyer-Mullen offense in all its glory. The most used formation - 5 wide - forces the defense to “spend” at least five of their players matching up with Florida’s speedy receiver-athletes. The typical Florida play has Tebow “reading” a defensive lineman, which results in all the defense players being accounted for. Then, the play is usually modified based on the number of safeties that are “deep”.

Opposing defenses get to pick their poison – bring up the safeties to stop Tebow, leaving Florida receivers in single coverage, or try to stop Tebow running when all the defensive players in the box have a blocker.

Saturday’s box score was a Mullen dream.

554 yards total offense, with 255 on the ground. 46 rushing attempts averaging 5.5 yards per attempt. The only turnover was a Tebow interception in which Cooper ran the wrong route. Lastly, the Gators dominated the possession time at 34:50 to 25:10.

Besides the 8 players with carries, 6 players had receptions, a stat made even more notable by the fact that there were only 14 receptions. Florida’s number of offensive weapons is amazing.

This is not to say Florida can expect to walk through their SEC schedule. For one, and I almost cringe in typing these words, Tebow could get hurt. Cam Newton is a quarterback in Tebow’s mold (larger, and perhaps faster, at that), but he isn’t ready to run the whole show yet. And without a credible QB running threat, the whole systems comes unwound.

Also, LSU’s defense should give the Gator offense some real problems. Florida’s spread (all spreads for that matter) are about equating numbers. In LSU’s case, Florida will likely have to block defensive monster Glenn Dorsey with two O-linemen, thus neutralizing any number-equating advantage Florida might have. Add in the “Death Valley” atmosphere and the difficulty of calling the audible, and the Gators will have a rough time on their hands.

Lastly, and this is a point that could generate a whole entire post, we are likely seeing one of those “inflection” moments in college football where a new system changes the way the game is played. Football, whether at college or pro level, is a game of imitation, and the success of teams like West Virginia and Louisville has served notice that spread offenses are for real. The spread is the great equalizer that allows smaller teams to compete with larger teams (Appalachian State with Michigan), and larger teams to destroy their “equals” (Oregon with Michigan). Look for the recruiting value of the mobile quarterbacks (and speed athletes of all stripes) to elevate dramatically in coming years, and for more teams to adopt the spread, as older “Big Ten” type offenses become obsolete.

The future is here – and speed (spread) is deadly.
UPDATE: The first comment here makes an excellent point I had intended to include (I'm very tired, having driven back from Gainesville yesterday, and with all the celebration partying...)
The point is - is Tennessee's defense that good, or even "SEC quality"?
The game against Cal would say it is not. Besides LSU, South Carolina worries me on defense.
But we have finally seen what Meyer intended all along. And whether UT's defense is up to par or not, 59 points is a statement. The last time Florida put points like that on UT was 1995 when we won 62-37.
So, throw in the additional cautionary of "not fully SEC defensive tested yet".


Year2 said...

Let's not get too ahead of ourselves here. I mean, can you really say that Tennessee has a true SEC defense this year?

Mergz said...

Excellent point (I actually intended to include it).

No, I can't say that.

And I put some real cautions in the latter part of the piece.

I worry about South Carolina's defense too.

But, the point was, this is the first time we - any of us - have seen the spread run at UF.

And it is going to be VERY hard to defend.

Henry Gomez said...

A lot of the points you made were made by the CBS announcers (Verne and Gary). They mentioned that spread can't be seen as a gimmick anymore, that college football is moving toward it more and more. I tried but had difficulty expressing the same thought on the Vol Nation internet call in show last night. Remember when the solution for Tennessee was to bring David Cutcliffe? Nothing against the man, but it seems symbolic that Tennessee was turning the page backward instead of forward. Going back to what worked before might not be the solution. If we look at Spurrier and the system that he had success with at Duke and Florida, now not so much. They are winning with defense. I think SOS is smart enough to see this seismic shift and incorporate it. He also is saddled with players he didn't recruit. We shall see as he moves forward, how he does.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully this HUGE win over the Vols silenced many of the skeptics and so-called "experts" who doubted the spread-option would work in the SEC. Urban Meyer has found a way to make it work, and when an offense works as one as far as the play to be made, effective blocking by the O-line and blocking by those players not intended to receive it generates results. Not only that, as I see it the "option" play is a strategy designed to confuse the opposing defense.

I was also impressed with the way Tebow handled himself under pressure; that one completion he made to Kestahn Moore was a perfect example - not to mention that Moore was "Johnny-on-the-spot"
and read that play well. The one INT wasn't Tebow's fault; Riley Cooper didn't follow through on the play and cut his route short.

I look for the silent cadence to be incorporated before we travel on the road, and especially before we play LSU in Baton Rouge. Meyer used this last year with Chris Leak during away games, and that in one way helps an offense function in spite of the crowd noise.

As far as SOS is concerned, he may be an "evil genius" but by no means is he invincible. Meyer finds a way to win, and the Gamecocks will be very well scouted before we meet them again this year.

In spite of the win the jury may still be out on the spread offense, but should the Gators have a very successful season when all is said and done let the truth be known that it can and DOES work regardless of conference affilliation.

Mergz said...

Henry -

Glad to hear the CBS announcers made some of the same points. Sometimes being at the game has it limit, because all I heard during the game was the manic shouting of 90,000+ Gator fans.


JJ Gator said...

I'm the "anonymous" one in comment #4, and I'd like to build on some of the others made here as we ll as my own.

Henry brings up a good point about defense; as much as the Meyer's spread-option offense is innovative to the SEC a team with a weak defense in this conference won't get anywhere - the Gators included. Not just SOS is emphasizing defense, but we now have one of the masters of defense - Nick Saban - back in the SEC. As young as we are on defense right now, we showed a LOT of maturity on Saturday against the Vols, and the talent Meyer recruited is starting to show its true prowess with speed and reaction time.

Going forward we need to take the "one game at a time" approach and never underestimate ANYBODY. We were well prepared to take on Tennessee, and we need to prepared for every game, every quarter, every time.

South Carolina may come down to a matter of who can outcoach who, but I say let it be played out on the field. All I'm going to say is that we better be ready for them.