The Most Important Game in the History of the Spread Offense, and its Legacy

The 2000s were undoubtedly the decade of the spread offense. We’re still feeling the reverberations of the tectonic shifts; what began in backwater practice fields, the synthesis of old ideas with new ones, is now omnipresent — overexposed, quite possibly — on most levels of football, and even the NFL is now beginning to adapt. Some of this charge is led by innovative coaches; some by fan request; some simply by players too good to not be part of a changing landscape.

Sons of the spread

The spread was not born on November 4, 2000, when lowly Northwestern, coached by the late Randy Walker, defeated Michigan, but that was the day it no longer belonged to the fringe: It had been conceived long before, from a variety of parents, but that day it was born to the world, live on our TV screens. I’ve previously written about the game and what it meant going forward.

Northwestern defeats Michigan 54-51. This is shocking enough. Northwestern scored fifty-four points against a Michigan team known for great defense and great defensive talent. Doubly shocking. Quarterback Zak Kustok threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns. Not so shocking from a spread quarterback in victory. We’d seen the run and shoot before; Drew Brees, also in the Big 10 playing for Purdue, commonly put up big passing numbers in a spread-to-pass system. Indeed, don’t they always have to throw for this much to win? That’s why they get in the gun, right?

But wait, there’s another stat.

Northwestern Rushing: 332 Yards; 6.64 average per carry. 332 yards.

What? Three-Hundred and Thirty Yards rushing?

How did they do that? Yes their running back had a huge day, but the yards that also made everyone sit up and take notice were the 55 yards from Northwestern’s quarterback, Zak Kustok – hardly Vince Young or Pat White [or Cam Newton] in raw athleticism. But the light went off across the country. If Zak Kustok can do it, maybe my guy can too. And even if he’s not superman just the threat that he can make the defense pay if they over pursue by getting me eight yards, then let’s do it.

And if by the threat of the quarterback, that opened up my runningback for the huge day, then we’d really have something. The gateway for the ubiquity of the spread — by definition, a system with multiple receivers — was not by appealing to every coach’s impulse to be Mike Leach and throw it 50 times a game; believe it or not, most coaches do not want to be Mike Leach. Instead if you could show them how to run the ball for 300 yards and score 54 points against an historically great rushing defense, that is something people will sign up for. Walker and his offensive coordinator, former Oklahoma offensive coordinator and current Indiana head coach, Kevin Wilson, were traditional, power, tight-end and fullback guys. If they could make it work — against that opponent — well, there was hope for everyone.

More than a decade later, maybe the spread is already past its prime.

We’re all still waiting to see if and when it will leave a lasting mark in the NFL; so far we’ve only seen the briefest, often haphazard and disorganized, of hints. But that game not only ushered in an age of the spread, it also ushered in the age of information: Not only were the ideas themselves different, there were more of them than ever, and they could be passed along, combined, pondered, and reformulated at a rate faster than ever before. The game was dramatic not only because of what it was — a great football game, where a “David” used used an underdog strategy to topple a “Goliath” — but when it happened: Immediately before the internet, the cloud, iPhones, iPads and all of the good stuff that has increased our interconnectedness over the same time period. Instead of having to spend four years visiting spring practices to learn a new technique, all the cut-ups, all the drills, all the background, the history, film and information one needed were accessible immediately, at minimal cost.

So even if the age of the spread is in decline — and I’m not convinced it is, though it is clearly no longer so novel and “contrarian” that it immediately gives an edge to any team that uses it — the other age, the one of football information and ideas that crash together and pick up velocity as they go, continues, and will only increase. As I’ve also previously written:

Ferment is abroad in football. The possibilities widen; new ideas are accepted and implemented within hours of conception. People are interested now in not just who their favorite players are, but what are these fascinating schemes. With the internet comes accessibility: now your high school runs what your favorite college team or professional team is not sophisticated enough to do. The ideas come from everywhere. The innovators are born on disparate staffs and the ideas ebb, flow, and crash together constantly, daily, hourly. Now even the big, famous schools and teams must wade into the waters to hire those comfortable with its movements.

This ferment is ideal. A decade or more ago ideas were stagnant. Football was only for the purists, and if you failed to replicate the Platonic ideal, then you hadn’t been schooled properly. Five years later, the beginnings of the ferment — turbulent, muddy, a vigorous undercurrent. Ten years later — today, now — the waters are flooding, spilling onto that once sacred ground.

The ideas stir. They stir football itself. This reexamination of all that came before — restless, relentless. The search for good ideas, new ideas, ideas never before dreamed of. This — the ferment — is not a fad. It cannot be. It is football itself.

  • Rod

    Why doesn’t some struggling NFL team that hasn’t contended in years stockpile all the good (but poorly valued, usually because of their smaller stature despite their speed and skill) spread-to-run players coming out of the college game on the cheap, spend all their money on the best defense in the NFL, hire Chip Kelly as their coach and let ‘er rip? 

    I’m convinced that someone who really knows how to coach the spread-to-run stuff, rather than the half-baked iterations we’ve seen so far in the NFL, could have success. The typical argument is that NFL defenders are too fast to defeat with the zone read and option looks. But Chip Kelly and the other guys who are good at this stuff find these blazing scat backs who are faster than NFL strong safeties, then use incredible deception and misdirection to confuse them. You’re telling me Troy Polamalu is going to run down DeAnthony Thomas and LaMichael James, who are being handed the ball by Tim Tebow?

  • Anonymous

    I agree as a general matter. I particularly agree that what we’ve seen in the NFL is very half-baked; what these guys really lack is the counter-punches. They know how to dabble in the zone read, but after that there’s not much else to try.

    A guy like Kelly — and really, Northwestern back then too — shows that while you want a mobile QB to even the numbers up it’s not really about having a supersonic running quarterback. Darron Thomas only ran for about 200 yards in total last season, yet Oregon was a top 5 rushing team again and was arguably even more explosive than the season before. Kelly played with the reads all season long, not necessarily trying to get Darron Thomas free but instead to get good blocking angles for his other guys. This is what has been missing with the NFL dabblers. 

    It’s also imperative that someone who does go spread in the NFL does so not with the intent of running the QB 25 times a game. So we’ll see. I think it’ll happen eventually — we got very close the other day — but we’ll have to see.

  • Steve M.

    I would argue that the Second “most important game in the history of the spread offense” also involved Michigan.  While that Northwestern game was important as a “proof”, it wasn’t until the App St. game that everyone was convinced that the spread was actually probably Superior to most other forms of offense that were then being used (not that that was necessarily true).  Coming so much later than the Northwestern game, the App St. game occurred at a time when the internet had continued its expansion and had become much more pervasive in the daily life of most Americans.  Youtube didn’t exist in 2000, but by 2007 everyone could watch highlights of that game over and over the day that it happened.  Nearly every struggling high school coach in the country had implemented all or parts of that offense in time for the next season (although they may have scrapped it after their first loss and gone back to whichever “-bone” they had been using previously).

  • Matt

    Might be regional bias (I live in Georgia), but I thought West Virginia’s win over Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl was a big one for the spread. I know it’s much later than the Michigan-Northwestern game, but I still think it opened some eyes. I remember many Georgia fans who, even in 2006, explained away the defeat by pointing to RichRod’s scheming as a “gimmick offense.” But that gimmick became the norm pretty quickly.

  • whereiend

    All four BCS bowl winners after the 2005 season where using mobile QB’s and some spread option.  Texas and WVU were 100% spread teams.  OSU and PSU both used lots of zone read mixed with their pro-style stuff.

    After Texas and Florida won consecutive national titles with spread offenses, it was most definitely not a secret anymore.  The spread was already huge before that Michigan-ASU game happened.

  • Aaron B.

    That was an interesting year for Michigan. Lots of preseason hype… then the App State game. THEN the game against Oregon (in Kelly’s first season, iirc) where Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart (and Ed Dickson I think) all went off. Then a solid but not great rest of the season until their bowl game against another spread team, the Florida Gators (fresh off of a Tebow Heisman and record-breaking season), who they beat, despite giving up 35 points. What an interesting year

  • Clark

    “The typical argument is that NFL defenders are too fast to defeat with the zone read and option looks.”

    That was the argument against Urban Meyer when he went to Florida. Supposedly SEC speed would defeat this newfangled spread offense that he imported.

  • Silver Creek Dawg

    As a UGA alum, I was at the game.  WVU definitely hit us in the mouth early in that game, but I also remember the UGA defense completely shutting them down starting about halfway through the 2nd quarter.

    It took a fake punt late in the 4th quarter for WVU to hold off UGA to win the game. 

  • Greg in Chicago

    Considering that Northwestern won a share of the Big Ten title in 2000, its third in 6 years from 1995 and more than schools like Stanford, and has continued to qualify for bowl games (5 in a row) and finish in the top half of the Big Ten, and considering how often they show up in this blog, I think characterizing the Cats as “lowly” does a disservice to the program.  Moreover, Zak Kustok had enough talent to initially sign with Notre Dame while Damien Anderson (RB) was a Heisman finalist in 2000.  Those two things help a lot too, considering the best “Xs and Os” still need “Jimmy’s and Joe’s” to execute them …

  • Anonymous

    FWIW, you’re right that UGA’s defense really tightened. They did, however, give up this play later in the 4th quarter:

    I just thought it was a good game all around. It may have been a spread wake up call for some, but I don’t think it should have been except for maybe some fans who had followed only their teams (not necessarily Georgia). I’d put it as one of the best bowl games of the last decade or so, but not necessarily as a game changer for the spread. As Silver Creek points out, Georgia’s comeback was very impressive in and of itself.

    In many ways it reminded me of a run-game focused version of Georgia’s comeback versus a Drew Brees led Purdue in the Outback bowl: Purdue, a spread team, came out fast against a Georgia team that maybe overestimated its talent advantage versus a spread (though I think it was more marked in that Purdue game, as Jim Donnan tried to blitz the hell out of Drew Brees and he was fine with that; later they went to dropping 8 in coverage and Purdue’s receivers were not talented guys after the catch). In any event, in one UGA came back and won the game, while in the other, UGA didn’t. And the difference in the two may have been special teams.

  • Rodneyzz

    I agree that the QB shouldn’t run it excessively, but even if your QB does get beat up you can find 10 other good cheap spread-to-run QB’s to replace him. It’s Moneyball. Running QB’s in the NFL are useless to most NFL teams; therefore you can basically get them for free, thus freeing up money to spend on other guys. Imagine being able to spend 2/3 of your money on defense in the salary cap NFL. You could sign beasts at every defensive position.

  • Anonymous

    This was no insult to Northwestern. They were ranked at the time of this game. But this is also a team that had an abysmal season the year before and could barely move the ball. And Kustok was a solid QB, but he also wasn’t Cam Newton. And yes, the point of a good scheme is to simply put players in position to make plays: The players, like Anderson, the O-Line, and so on, have to be able to make them, and they had guys who clearly could. You can see in the clips above the Michigan guys picking up Anderson after plays: They clearly respected him, because he was kicking their ass. And of course it’s relevant that Northwestern won a share of the Big 10 title that year and that only amplifies, not diminishes the point: Their scheme, combined with their talent, led them to a great year.

    I don’t know why anyone would take offense to a post saying that Northwestern won arguably the most important game of the decade. Also, keep in mind that a game’s “significance” in the sense I was describing it was what kind of message it sent to coaches, which even if you’re a Northwestern partisan you have to realize, “lowly” was used in the sense of how people would see the victory. Indeed, I can tell you that many if not almost all Michigan fans looked at Northwestern as “lowly” before that game was played (though not after).

  • Jeff Erickson

    I’d say that the national perception of us hasn’t changed that much – our horrendous bowl record doesn’t help.

    Anyhow, great article, thanks for allowing me to relive that game … once again.

  • NWO

    Maybe the New York Jets will delve deeper into  this now that they have Tebow. Mark Sanchez got beat up vs. the Ravens last year and was never the same. With so many “talented” backs coming out of the spread systems something has to give in the No Fun League.

  • “We’re all still waiting to see if and when it will leave a lasting mark in the NFL…”
    the Colts have run the spread for a decade. the Patriots have been to 5 Super Bowls using spread concepts. the SAINTS(!) have won the Super Bowl running spread.
    i’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that the spread has already made a lasting mark in the NFL.

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