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Defending the Spread Offense

Sports Illustrated's college football preview issue this year features an in depth look at the offense du jour - the spread. Specifically, how do you stop the spread. The spread comes in many flavors, whether it's Urban Meyer's spread option, the Texas "zone read", or the aerial circus Mike Leach runs at Texas Tech. Deep down, they all share a common foundation: spread the defense across the entire field and look for a seam, a mismatch, or a mistake to exploit.

Nobody has really found THE antidote for the spread, though many coaches have theories on how you combat it. Responding to the spread requires a combination of three factors: speed, fundamentals, and being disruptive.

As I read this article, I thought about the 2007 Husker season, and suddenly saw the definitive explanation of how Nebraska's defensive philosophy essentially was obsolete when it encountered modern college football.


Fade back to the early 1990's. Tom Osborne and Charlie McBride, tired of getting whipped in bowl games by Florida teams, transforms Nebraska's defense. Linebackers become defensive ends. Safeties become linebackers. Speed takes the field...Nebraska goes on a 60-3 run in the middle 90's.

Fast forward to the last few years. Look at the size of the Husker defenders: 295 pound Adam Carriker (who the St. Louis Rams would move to nose tackle) fills the spot once occupied by 255 pound Grant Wistrom. Five years ago, Barrett Ruud played middle linebacker as a 230 pounder. Last season, Phillip Dillard filled that position playing at over 260 pounds.

Guess what carrying all that extra weight means? You're slower. As everybody else is putting smaller, faster players on the field, Nebraska was doing just the opposite. Putting bigger players on the field. Strike one.


Remember Appalachian State's upset of Michigan last season? Watch the Wolverines poor tackling of speedster Dexter Jackson:

Well, Husker fans saw plenty of that in recent years. Nebraska practiced in half pads much of the season so they could focus on scheme. Problem is that hurts fundamentals since players aren't tackling like they need to in a game. But since NFL players usually practice in half pads, so did Nebraska. Except college players aren't NFL players...

Ouch. For a couple of years, this was the most points ever given up by Nebraska's defense.

Being Disruptive

The spread is all about timing between the quarterback and his receivers. You don't have to necessarily sack the quarterback, but you need to break him out of his comfort zone. When Mike Leach first implemented the spread at Texas Tech in 2000, Kliff Kingsbury was his first quarterback to put up huge numbers...until he met an attacking Husker defense in Lubbock. Nebraska rolled to a 56-3 victory. Fast forward four years and a new philosophy on defense: the bend and break. Rather than take a chance and give up a huge play, rush three and drop eight into coverage. That prevented the big play all right, but Tech quarterback Sonny Cumbie completed 44 of 56 passes for 436 yards leading to what was at the time the most points ever scored against Nebraska.Of course, the Husker defense would fail time and time again against the spread throughout the next few years. Texas Tech in 2005. Missouri in 2005.

See any Husker defenders in this photo? Sometimes the Husker defense
was truly non-existent against the spread.
Oklahoma State 2006. Missouri 2007. Oklahoma State 2007. Kansas 2007. (OK, I'll stop now. You get the point.)

2008: Starting Over

Here's the thing. Recognizing you have a problem is the first step... but then you have to do something about it. And Nebraska is. All those oversized players on defense? Well, they're trimming down. Will that improve their speed? Certainly. Will it be enough? That remains to be seen.

Fundamentals? Well, that's Bo Pelini. He believes in teaching first. If something is a problem, he won't move onto something else until you mastered the basics. These guys will be much more fundamentally strong this season.

Disruptive? Well, Nebraska was disruptive in 2003 under Pelini. That was enough to convince Les Miles to hire Pelini at LSU, and the results speak forthemselves.

Does just hiring Bo Pelini automatically make everything better? Of course not. But I'd argue that for the first time in many years, the Huskers have a fighting chance against the spread.