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Stats show power football on third down can be used out of shotgun spread


Matthew Stevens



STARKVILLE -- Defensive coordinators across the country have been racking their brains trying to figure out a method to stop tempo offenses.  


The conclusion might be actually hoping for a short yardage situation. It is becoming a common perception around the country that the shotgun spread offenses are hampered by short yardage defenses, such as third-and-short or goal line.  


ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge said as much during last weekend's Ole Miss-Alabama broadcast. When the Crimson Tide were able to sack Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace for a safety in the fourth quarter of Alabama's 25-0 victory, Blackledge called schools that line up in the shotgun in short yardage situations "a pet peeve" of his.  


"The problem I have with offenses that operate exclusively out of the shotgun formation has more to do with goal line situations than short yardage plays in other parts of the field," Blackledge said in a e-mail to The Dispatch. "If you are on or around the 1 yard line coming out of your own end zone (like Ole Miss on Saturday), I think sometimes the best thing you can do is go under center and run a QB sneak rather than starting with the ball four yards deep in the end zone." 


Blackledge, who ran a pro-style offense as a three-year starter at Penn State where he guided the Nittany Lions to 31-5 record including a national championship in 1982, said he also sees problems with offenses trying to score near the goal line by lining up in the shotgun. 


"Conversely, if you are going in from the 1-yard-line, having your QB under center with two or three backs in the backfield gives you more power goal line run options as well as play action passes," Blackledge said. "If you are only one yard away from a touchdown, I just don't like starting the play by snapping it to the 6-yard line." 


In July at Southeastern Conference media day, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema called the pro-style running style that he's brought to the Razorbacks from Big Ten Conference power Wisconsin playing "a little bit of normal American football"  


"We wanted to line up with a tight end and a couple wideouts, a tailback and a fullback, see what we can do," Bielema said. "If we have to put five wideouts on the field, that makes us have the best chance of winning, that's what I'll do. I don't think that is what is best for us." 


Following the 1982 season, he won the Davey O'Brien Award for best quarterback in the nation by utilizing a basic two back or two tight end package that was the norm over 30 years ago.  


However, the statistical numbers support both sides of the argument and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen dismissed the idea there's a better formation to run in third downs.  


According to many diverse offensive schemes were in the Top 20 on third-down conversions this season. For example, Stanford, which primarily runs a two tight end set, and Baylor, which runs a read-option passing attack, have the exact same percentage of conversions on third down. 


Mullen, who has been a position coach, coordinator and head coach primarily in a primary read-option spread offense, proclaimed it's not the formation but the execution that can keep a offense on the field.  


"If there's was a perfect offense or perfect defense in every scenario, then people would just run that and nobody would be able to stop it or move the ball against it," Mullen said. "I've run spread and we've been unbelievable on third down and run spread and we've had issues on third down. I've had I-formation teams where we've been great on third down and I-formation teams where we've had issues too." 


MSU is converting only 36.84 percent (21 of 57) of their third down conversions this season, which is good for 86th nationally and 13th in the SEC. The Bulldogs have only ranked in the Top 80 once during Mullen's tenure (2010, Tied for 25th). 


The spread offense, the wildcat formation, isn't a new trend in football. In the state of Texas, Rusty Russell is considered the inventor of the high school spread offense. A graduate of Howard Payne University in the West Texas town of Brownwood, Tex., Russell arrived in 1927 at a boarding school for orphaned boys. The only system of football that could work there would be about speed and spreading his skill position players out wide. Russell spent two more full seasons at the boarding school and coached a couple of the most memorable players in Texas football. His quarterback was Bobby Layne, who went on to star at Texas and would eventually be elected in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  


Eighty-six years after Russell invented the offensive philosophy at a small high school for boys, high profile Division 1 programs are using the methods to close the gap quickly with the elite college powers. 


"In my opinion, high tempo and spread offenses have been the single thing that's created parity in college football," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said in July. "And it's over the last eight or ten years, when coaches spread the court and been getting the ball to young men that years ago wouldn't have an opportunity to play." 


In Oklahoma State's 21-3 victory over MSU in Houston last month, the Cowboys utilized a diamond formation that created a more power running look for quarterback J.W. Walsh than the passing style they had been known for. During the first four games of the season, MSU has varying presentations of the spread offense while facing Oklahoma State, Alcorn State, Auburn and Troy. When asking how MSU goes about defending the spread offense, whether in practice or in games, Bulldogs defensive coordinator Geoff Collins still believes his players are at a obvious disadvantage in third-and-short.  


"We're still trying to create third-and-long scenarios because that's when the options for the offense are limited," Collins said. "We know we're facing a good offense when we get the cutups from our video staff and there's like two plays of third and long. You can still be powerful up the middle out of the spread." 


In 2009, 48 schools ran the spread or a version of the spread at least 75 percent of time and that number continues to increase year after year.  


"It changed in high school (and) it's changing coast to coast because t's not just limited to be certain region or league or philosophy," West Virginia coach Dana Holgerson said in July. "It's catching on across the country. I don't think that's going to change any time soon." 


Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.



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