Well, I proposed this idea, so Ill put the first write-up out there to see what people think.
If youre new to The Key Play, or just Virginia Tech and football in general, then I hope articles like this will help you. In the brief time Ive thought about things to include, Ive already come up with quite a bit. I can cover anything from the history of Virginia Tech, traditions, to basic football information. I am by no means French or Mason so dont expect earth shattering information, just basic stuff that gives the novices out there something to look for during game day.
So lets start with something relevant to our opponent this week shall we.
The Spread Offense
Over the last few weeks you may have heard this term thrown around because WCU, ECU, and now Marshall run this type of offense.
The name explains the general idea pretty well; it spreads the players across the length of the field instead of boxing everyone up like a more traditional offensive does. This gives the offense somewhat of an advantage by having less defensive players around the ball creating one-on-one opportunities and if the defensive player misses his chance, then the offense will likely gain a big play out of it.
Let's take a look at how a spread offense sets up:
First off notice that the quarterback is in shotgun; this means he's set up about five yards behind the center who is snapping the ball. This helps him to see the entire field and where all of the defensive players are set up. Next, take a look at how many receivers are in the formation, there are five. That's a lot. Most formations have only two or three receivers set up off of the offensive line. Obviously the defense will have to assign players to cover each receiver so this will then cause the defense to spread out as well. This leads to a much more open field and forced one-on-one matchups that the quarterback can easily see.
Ok, so how is this different from a more traditional offensive formation? Let's take a look:
Here we have a quarterback that is under the center instead of in shotgun and now we only have two wide receivers and one running back. The defense is now much more centralized and mainly focues around the area where the ball is being snapped. This offensive set up is geared more towards a running offense. The running back get's a head start before being handed off the ball by the quarter back and the line has an extra two players to help block for the run play. Instead of one-on-one scenarios, the offense relys on the blocking schemes, which can get very complicated, to open up holes which the running back can then get through for yards. If you decided to pass you might run a play-action, where the quarterback fakes the handoff to the running back to fake out the defense. However, unlike the spread, the matchups are much harder to see. The receivers could be coverd by multiple different players on defense. This puts much more pressure on the quarterback to make good decisions both before and during the play.
So Why Would I Run A Spread Offense Over Something Else?
I think to understand this we have to give a small history lesson here. The spread offesne's invention is credited to Rusty Russell, who coached an orphanage team in the 1920s. His team was full of scrawny boys usually overmatched physically by other teams. Running the ball with a blocking scheme wouldn't work well for him because it required small, scrawny, and probably undernurished kids to push around farm boys. That's not happening.
So, Rusty came up with a way to take the strength mis-match out of the equation. By spreading the field and giving the ball to his scrawny, yet agile, players in more open space, they were able to avoid singular tacklers and get significant yards. The stonger players on defense were slower and less conditioned to running. This offense made them have to run futher than normal to get to the ball, thus swinging the advantage over to the offense while wearing out the defense over the course of the game.
Today you will see many smaller and lesser known teams run a spread offense (see WCU, ECU, and Marshall). They do it for mostly the same reason Coach Rusty did.
The best way I can think to describe this is the following thought exercise. Think of how many people you know who can bench 300+ lbs. Now, think of how many people you know who can run fast. If you're like me, you probably could think of more people for the second question. My point is, that the bigger schools, like Virginia Tech, Alabama, LSU, etc., get all the stong linemen-type guys and leave none left over for smaller schools. Now, these larger programs also recruit many speedsters as well but after they've had their take there are still plenty left for other programs.
You will often here the spread offense called an equalizer, because it does just that. Now, instead of a small offensive line going up against a much superior and stonger defensive line, the quick and athletic playmakers (quarterback, running back, receivers) are matching up against other quick and athletic defenders on the outside edges of the field. While the bigger school still have an advantage here due to a recruiting advantage, the gap is much closer.
While the spread offense is popular among these smaller schools, it is also growing in popularity among larger football programs as well. The University of Oregon has been the standard to which all spread offenses are measured lately. Their offense scores an average of 50+ points a game and they rarely huddle leaving defensive players gasping for breath. I highly encourage watching the video below if you want to see how a top notch school runs this offense. Do not fret too much though, Marshall is not nearly this good. While Oregon does just about everything from this set up, Marhsall uses it mainly for passing. We'll talk more about that down below.
How Does It Work?
Marshall knows that they cannot match up with Virginia Tech's defensive line. Again, this goes back to us just having stronger and more athletic players in those positions. So, Marshall is going to try and use this spread out formation to match their receivers against our defensive backs, which is a much more favorable matchup for them.
They are a passing offense and they really like to go for the long plays. They will be able to see the one-on-one matchups before the ball is snapped and if the receiver beats his defender, expect to see them throw it deep. If those routes are covered then the quarterback will "check down" to shorter routes that will be run right behind our defensive line. These receivers will likely only be covered by one man due to so many other receivers being involved and most of them being on completely seperate areas of the field, so tackling will be huge. Even though it's a short pass, missed tackles could lead to big gains. Spread teams thrive off of this and it can easily keep them in it.
While they prefer to pass, Marshall will have to try and run it some, just to keep our defense from assuming a pass play is coming every play. The spread formations works well for this as well. Since the defense is so spread out the running back will be in a similar situation as the receivers on their short routes; one man will be in a position to make a tackle. If he misses, then the runner will have a lot of room to gain yards before anyone else can get to him.
How Do We Stop It?
The key is good defending by our defensive backs. If we can keep their receivers from getting open quickly then we will put Marshall's quarterback into some tough situations. Our defensive line should be able to get through their offensive line fairly quickly, remember that's why Marshall runs the spread to begin with.
If our defensive line can do that, then Marshall's quarterback will have to make quick decisions and could lead to him making bad throws, or even throwing interceptions.
Marshall will make some plays though, and when they do we have to tackle. Failure to do that well and we could make them look a lot better than they really are. Against any spread system, tackling becomes key.
Ok, So What Should I Watch For On Saturday?
Since this is the first one of these let me give those of you who are new to football and wanting to learn more a little tip: It is easy to get into the habbit of just watching the football. Take a few play here and there to watch a single player or two, see what they do. Watch a lineman for a few plays to see how he blocks, watch the receivers run their routes. Watch defensive players and how they cover their men. Doing this will help you out a lot in learning the game.
Watch for Marshall to "spread" the field with four or five receivers on each play. When watching the receivers run routes, notice how they are trying to find openings in the defense made from spreading them out across the field.
Rakeem Cato is their QB, and he is probably their best player. He should be fun to watch and hopefull our defense can shut him down. He's a great passer and is only the watch list for many prestigious awards this year. If a pass play breaks down he has the potential to run and he's just as athletic as any runnning back.
Watch our linebackers to see what they do. Will they sit back and defend the short passing game while looking for interceptions, or wil they blitz the quaterback hoping to either sack him, or force him into a bad decision?
Finally, watch how well we tackle. As I mentioned above, missed tackled lead to big plays. It's not always bout the first guy bringing him down, but stopping him long enough that more defensive players can come help on the tackle.
Here's some video of Marshall's offense so you can get some practice in what to look for:
Let me know what you guys think. This is just my first one of these and I really don't mind doing one each week during the season. I know this site expects high quality, so if you see something that can be better, let me hear it.
If you're new to VT football, or just football in general, first off WELCOME! Second, create an account and feel free to post questions, thoughts, comments. I think we're all more than happy to try and teach anyone more about this awesome sport.