WOLFE: We are finally out of the dark ages

The above expression of relief comes from Buddy Breaux, a past president an LSU football support group, the Tiger Gridiron Club. Breaux was expressing his joy in seeing his beloved LSU Tigers, after many years of a “traditional offense”, finally going modern and joining the teams playing a “spread offense”.

LSU football has a lot going for them, high school football in Louisiana is outstanding, their fan base is second to none, their football budget is huge, and their facilities are beyond first class. While they were always competitive, they were seeking a return to national prominence, and most importantly a National Championship. They decided that an overhaul of its stone age offense was needed.

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LSU had been a pound it out offensive team. They regularly used fullbacks and tight ends, lining up most often under center and in the I formation. They ran the ball well, but did not throw it very well. In 2014,. Their passing “attack” ranked #116 in the nation. To beat the best, they realized, they had to be able to throw it with the best.

It takes more than just deciding to go in a different direction. LSU now had a QB who could make the spread work after Joe Burrow had transferred from Ohio State University. The second part of the transformation came with the hiring of a new offensive coach. Joe Brady was hired away from the New Orleans Saints staff.

Now following their huge win vs. Alabama, Brady is the “new offensive guru/genius”.

Breaux’s comments came before the huge offensive performance by LSU game against Alabama. The following statistics make abundantly clear what a significant difference the spread has made to the Tigers output vs Alabama.

  • Alabama had won the last 8 games
  • Alabama won last year 29-0
  • LSU totalled 10 points in last 3 games
  • LSU scored 46 points this year
  • 2018 game 184 passing yards – 2019 – 393 yds
  • 2018 game 194 total yards – 2019 – 559 yds
  • It was not exclusively through the air – running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, had 103 rushing yard and scored 3 TDs

The winners of the last five National Championship games have all been spread teams. Nick Saban had been a proponent of the pound it out ground-based approach to offense. His turning point came after several spread teams with inferior talent to his athletes played them tough.

“In defending some of this stuff through the years, you see the issues and problems that it creates. You try to implement some of the things yourself,” Saban said.

My perspective

How to define this new age of football? It is putting four and five receivers – potentially six in Canada – on the field. It is speeding up the tempo. It is passing more. It is spreading the field and the defense. It has the QB reading all three levels of the defense with run-pass options, better known as RPOs.

Why can it work? In order to run the ball, offensive linemen must move their assigned defender. Or in other words, they must win their 1 on 1. It is a much easier task for an offensive lineman when pass protecting if he just gets a tie, it is a win. In fact losing slowly is pretty darn good when the offense is throwing the ball.

Similarly, when a fullback is inserted into the game, the defense will respond with a linebacker. Unless the fullback wins most of his one on ones versus the added linebacker, or another defender he is required to block, the offensive team has not helped their cause. The exact same argument can be made for the addition of a tight end.

In other words, by removing a defender far enough, or “spreading” him from the run play, the offense does not have to block him. Receiver blocking remains an important technique, however, it is usually to gain extra, not initial yards.

That is not to say that tight ends or fullbacks no longer have a place in modern football. While the spread offense does not require either of these positions, their occasional use forces the defense additional preparation time, and they can be very effective in the play-action pass game.

Spread teams will usually see defenses lining up in six man fronts, the number of potential stunts and blitzes are very much reduced in those fronts. Teams wanting to bring a 7th defender have to bring him from a distance, making the blitz far less effective.

An alternative defensive option is to put a 7th player in a position to pressure the QB. To do so requires the defender to show his intentions early allowing the QB to audible to an effective protection scheme or better still, call upon a blitz beater.

An additional and important spread advantage is that a QB in the shotgun can more easily scan the defense and see his pre-snap reads. It has been my experience that most QBs feel much more comfortable in the gun, providing that the center is an accurate snapper.

It does not follow that playing a spread guarantees success. It requires a talented and intelligent QB, plus coaches who study and understand the spread philosophy. The best coaches know the various strategies defenses will employ, and have answers for the defensive answers.

Bottom line

I believe the spread allows lesser teams a chance to compete, and good teams a chance to contend for playoffs and maybe more. Excellent teams have a chance to dominate becoming league champions, provincial champions, and perhaps even national champions.

A case can be made that the spread is even more important in 3 down football. CFL offences have been playing a variety of the spread in almost forever. Doug Flutie was the absolute master and made Canadian football incredibly exciting for CFL fans. Most U Sports teams are spread teams. The spread is a natural in 3 down football, it also creates a greater need for excellence at QB, and the passing game than does the 4 down game.

The two upcoming U Sports Bowl games have interesting QB related stories.

Would McMaster have won if Western’s Chris Merchant were healthy? Not to take anything away from the spirited Marauders win, but the Mustangs lost for the 1st time to an Ontario foe in three years, they passed for only 93 yards without their all-star QB. It is quite possible they would have won anyway – just asking?

As all fans of U Sports football are aware, it is 10 years since an AUS team has won a semi-final bowl game. I believe that Acadia has a real chance to win this time. They are facing a tough University of Montreal team, and it will not be easy. However, they have a superior and more experienced QB. Acadia’s CFC40 Hunter Guenard has led Acadia to an undefeated season and is among the very best QBs in U Sports. On the other hand, U of M’s Frederic Paquette has only started a couple of games, with limited success. He is, however, a threat to run effectively.

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