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Time to spread out

Outback Bowl coaches, both old hands, have embraced the newfangled spread offense.

By JAMAL THALJI

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 1, 2001


TAMPA -- There was the suspended star. Then the fired assistant accused of passing secrets to the enemy. The opera. Those pesky NFL rumors. One player called out another in the newspaper, and a teammate actually is suing another.

Yet for all the bizarre, off-the-field rancor leading up to the 15th Outback Bowl, the strangest sight may come on the field at today's 11 a.m. clash between No. 19 Ohio State and South Carolina.

Say, a Lou Holtz-coached offense using the shotgun and a three- or four-receiver set. Or how about John Cooper's Big Ten team utilizing the same spread-out, wide-open attack?

No, South Carolina's Holtz and Ohio State's Cooper haven't stopped preaching discipline and fundamentals.

But nor do they fear the new ways.

How appropriate, then, that the first game of 2001 very well could showcase the scheme of tomorrow, the spread, under the direction of two self-proclaimed "old school" coaches at Raymond James Stadium.

"They did not have to take me screaming and hollering," Holtz said. "I told my assistant coaches this is what I want to do."

Cooper complimented his rival, an acknowledged option man, for having the foresight to change.

"The mark of a good football team, a good football coach, I think is to stay a step ahead of the game," Cooper said, "and college offenses are changing. The offense of the future in college football, I think, will be the spread offense."

The offenses are question marks because there are no such doubts about the defenses.

The Gamecocks (7-4) are ranked 16th in total defense, the Buckeyes (8-3) 23rd. OSU is ninth in run defense; USC is 11th in pass defense. Each is the top scoring defense in its conference.

"I think both teams are playing in this bowl game because of their defenses," Cooper said. "I think we're here because of our defense, and I think it's safe to say South Carolina is here playing this game because of their defense."

Then there's the offenses.

OSU ranks in the bottom half of nearly every offensive category in the Big Ten. USC is in the middle of the pack in the SEC, which, to be fair, is substantially better than it was in its 0-11 season in '99. USC scored 87 points then, to 259 in 2000.

But that team tried to run the option, without nearly the talent to do so. The Gamecocks improved their offense the day Holtz asked his son, offensive coordinator Skip Holtz, to install the newfangled spread attack.

With just one recruiting class under his belt, Holtz used the spread to maximize what talent he had. Skip Holtz always had wanted to use the spread. His father decided it was time.

"The only chance we had was to go to a spread offense," Holtz said. "Because last year when you looked at the film, we had two wideouts, they line up in bump and run (coverage), they cover those two, and they put the other nine men on the line of scrimmage, and you knock everyone down and gain 3 yards.

"I coached the defensive backfield at Ohio State, and I promise you, you line a guy out there and they'll cover him with someone. If you spread people out, you're going to give us more running room."

USC will need the spread even more today, because Holtz suspended leading rusher Derek Watson for violating team rules.

So what is the spread? Think Oklahoma and Northwestern.

When the offense's multiple receivers flood downfield, the quarterback must quickly read and react, delivering the ball to the open man. Spreading out three or four receivers forces the defense to stay back in coverage, opening lanes for the running game, whether the tailback or a scrambling quarterback.

Thus the spread challenges a defense and creates mismatches. Multiple receivers means a defensive back likely will be one-on-one against the third or fourth wideout without help. Often, a linebacker will have to pick up a running back or a wideout.

With everyone spread out, an elusive back or a mobile quarterback can take advantage of all that open space, which also can throw the pass rush off.

Cooper and the Buckeyes know well how hard it is to defend the spread. Miami of Ohio nearly beat OSU with it, and Minnesota and Purdue did.

Which is why Cooper's team has been tinkering with the spread since December. OSU usually runs out of the I with a liberal mix of passes, but it started using the spread in two-minute drills.

"We are prepared for the spread offense by Ohio State," Holtz said.

So, two traditional coaches and two non-traditional offenses. Holtz, as usual, had a joke ready.

"As far as the option is concerned, I still like the option," he said. "We called the option 137 times this year, and every time the quarterback checked out of it."

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