College football has a rich history filled with traditions. But here’s a tradition that appears to be going away: the huddle.
Notice anybody huddling in any of Nebraska’s first three games, on either side of the ball?
Didn’t think so.
It’s a result of the trend in college football toward no-huddle, fast-paced offenses like the spread or variations of it. Nebraska runs an up-tempo offense, and so did Southern Miss, UCLA and Arkansas State. The three games produced a combined 2,797 yards and 200 points. Idaho State, Nebraska’s opponent on Saturday? Yep, the Bengals run the spread.
College coaches are turning the huddle into an historical footnote like the flying wedge or “H” goals posts and that means … what, exactly?
It means coaches are signaling in offensive plays and defensive schemes on the fly. It means players shuttle in and out of the game like a hockey line change, moving directly to their positions. It means nobody gets to rest between plays, not even 300-pound offensive linemen.
If you do it right, the up-tempo offense gives you more time of possession and more plays, which should mean more scoring opportunities. If you do it wrong, you might surrender the ball after a 30-second offensive possession and your defense hasn’t even caught its breath yet.
“It’s like a track meet out there,” Husker linebacker Will Compton said.
Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead — a pretty fair basketball player in his high school days in Plano, Texas — said he recognizes similarities between hoops and the up-tempo offense the Huskers run.
Are we talking about basketball on grass? NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis shrugs his shoulders, acutely aware of the challenge he faces nearly every week.
“It’s fast-break football,” he said.
Spread 'em out
The spread offense generally incorporates four or five wide receivers and is pass-heavy, although some coaches would argue that the secret to an effective spread offense is the run game. The offense isn’t so much vertical as it is horizontal, making defenses chase smaller, quicker players all over the field. Spread offenses can utilize a strong-armed pocket passer — think Houston with players such as David Klingler, Andre Ware and Case Keenum — or a dual-threat quarterback such as Vince Young (Texas) or Cam Newton (Auburn).
The spread — which has been around since the 1920s — seemed to catch on in college football when Mouse Davis and Portland State were posting eye-popping yardage and point totals with the “Run and Shoot” in the late 1970s. In the NFL, the Buffalo Bills ran the no-huddle to four Super Bowls appearances in the early '90s. Oregon and Oklahoma are two recent college programs that pushed the tempo up a notch.
ESPN did a study in 2009 and found that 49 college teams ran a variation of the spread offense at least 75 percent of the time. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who ran up huge numbers at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida with his version of the up-tempo attack, once said that no two spread teams run the offense the same way.
If you aren’t running the spread offense, perhaps you are — as Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said recently about Georgia — playing “old-man football.”
Turn it up
Why has the up-tempo offense become all the rage?
Here’s one theory: In 2006 the NCAA started tinkering with the play clock to reduce the length of games. Coaches countered with the no-huddle to increase the tempo.
Welcome to fast-break football.
Here are some numbers to ponder:
In 2006, Nebraska led the NCAA with 965 plays in 14 games, an average of 68.9 plays per game. Eight teams ran 900 plays or more. In 2011, Houston led the NCAA with 1,102 plays in 14 games, an average of 78.7 plays per game. Even more telling, 48 teams ran 900 plays or more last season. A total of 13 teams ran 1,000 plays or more.
Offenses are becoming a high-volume business.
The start of the 2012 season has produced similar numbers. In Week 1, nine teams — Marshall (101), Oregon (96), Ball State (96), Syracuse (95), Toledo (94), Texas Tech (93), Florida International (91), Michigan State (90) and Iowa State (90) — ran 90 plays or more. Nebraska is averaging 73 plays per game this season, but has felt the hurt on the other side of the ball as well, allowing 94 plays and 653 yards in a loss to UCLA.
“I think teams are doing it now because defenses are becoming more adept at playing the spread,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “You can go so fast it’s hard to relay defensive information to the players.”
“I think it’s an equalizer,” Papuchis said. “Sometimes teams run it because their talent level doesn’t quite match up. Some teams run the up-tempo offense and make a lot of success on the defense’s confusion. A lot of plays that teams like Arkansas State run, the defense isn’t even lined up yet.”
Papuchis said reason would dictate his defensive goals and expectations should be lowered, but he’s not willing to do that.
“If your goal is to hold someone under 300 yards in 60 plays, 90 plays is a different thing,” he said. “But we haven’t adjusted our standard. Goals are important, but at the end of the day we’re interested in winning. We played a really poor game on defense against UCLA and I was disappointed, but if we had won 37-36, I would have been happy.”
College defenses are struggling to keep up, and Nebraska — which played in the wide-open Big 12 until 2011 — is no different. Only twice in the past 10 years (2003 and 2009) have the Huskers held season opponents to an average of less than 300 yards a game. Only four times in that same period has Nebraska allowed an average of less than 20 points per game.
Husker quick step
Nebraska runs a fast-paced, no-huddle offense, but running backs coach Ron Brown said the Huskers like to mix the tempo a little more than most teams.
“It's become such a chess match on the sideline before the play starts,” Brown said. “People are trying to figure out how many wide receivers you have out there, how many tight ends, is it 21 personnel, what is it? You try to keep people guessing. What’s really tough on defenses is if they want to blitz or be in certain packages it’s hard to get lined up and disguise what you’re doing. A fast tempo puts defenses in situations where they have to show their hand.”
Beck said the fast-paced offense, through repetition at practice, allows his players to react more instinctively in situations where they face the unknown.
“A prime example was last week against Arkansas State. They came out in a defensive front we didn’t even practice,” he said. “We never saw them run it on film. Our guys were able to block it, to go get it.”
What’s the strategy in those situations?
“You’ve got to come off the ball and block what you see,” Beck said. “You have to play fast. You’ve got to leave the last play behind you and go.”
What’s next in the progression of offense is anyone’s guess. A defense made up of 11 defensive backs? Multiple quarterbacks on the field? Radios in the helmets of players to communicate faster with coaches?
“I don’t know, we’ll see,” Beck said. “5G? 4G to 5G? I’ve got enough problems, I don’t need things like that.”
The defensive side of the ball will have to adapt quickly, Papuchis said.
“The more you watch it, in a lot of ways football is becoming more of a 7-on-7 passing thing,” he added. “I think the longer we go, the more throwing you’re going to see. People are going to do whatever they can do to get more speed on the field. I think that’s the way things are headed.”