ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Coaches' football strategy meetings have been known to become rambunctious, even violent with pencils, erasers, chairs and even fists being thrown over differences of opinion as to what play will work and what won't.
The old axiom surrounding the sometimes feisty discussions is that the coach with the chalk last is the winner.
It's sort of like last Saturday at Northwestern's Ryan Field. One could sense almost from the start that the team with the ball last would win.
Northwestern had the chalk last, defeating Michigan 54-51 in a game that should forever erase the Big Ten's reputation of presenting teams that are big, slow and unimaginative.
For anyone who still subscribes to the “Three-yards-in-a-cloud-of- dust” theory, please note that the two teams tied for the lead in the Big Ten, Purdue and Northwestern, both use different variations of the radical spread offense. They feature attacks that are wide open and often susceptible only to self-destruction.
“If you execute, defenses can't stop you,” Northwestern coach Randy Walker said after his team rang up 654 yards, including 332 on the ground, the most ever allowed by a Michigan defense. “We have a great quarterback (Zak Kustok) who can make plays running and passing and we have one of the best running backs (Damien Anderson) I've ever seen.
“When I started coaching we used to think 10-7 was a big-time win. Whether it's 10-7 or 54-51, we won by three. We just have to score more points than they do.”
It's not a gimmick, fly-by-night offense that will quickly pass. It's here to stay until those of defensive persuasion discover a way to harness it.
“They got the chalk last,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr admitted yesterday. “Defensive coaches have a lot of work to do. They've had it their way the last 10 years. They just put nine guys up there and make you throw the ball and blitz you. It's hard to score unless you're just better. Those days are over, at least for a while.
“Defensively we did not have the answers to the spread offense and I don't think I've seen anybody that does. We're in a new era in college football. I think defensive coaches are in the same position people were 25 years or so ago when the wishbone offense came in. Until someone does come up with answers you're going to see more of it (spread offense) and a lot of points being scored.”
The term “spread offense” is somewhat generic in that there are so many variations of the spread. Northwestern, for instance, is more geared to the run, along with a no-huddle offense that gives Kustok much more time to change plays at the line of scrimmage, which he did as many as three times on one possession against UM.
Purdue, with its five-receiver set, is more pass oriented. Boilermakers quarterback Drew Brees runs much less than Kustok, who is the designated runner on a lot of plays. Brees takes a dive before being hit. Kustok takes a hit like a running back. You have to knock him down.
Before yielding 654 yards to Northwestern, the most total yardage Michigan had ever given up was 530. That was a month ago against Purdue in a 32-31 setback. In both games, the Wolverines led 28-10 before losing.
Michigan (6-3, 3-2) gets back to traditional breathing space Saturday when it entertains Penn State.
Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jeff Backus, one of four UM offensive linemen playing in their final home game Saturday, called last Saturday's loss at Northwestern “Ugly,” adding, “That's not the way Michigan plays football. That wasn't Big Ten football.
“I don't want to see it (spread offense) happen at Michigan. We have too much tradition. I like to come off the ball and grind it out. That's what we enjoy. I can't imagine how they (Northwestern) do it.”
The Wolverines proved the old way isn't obsolete, compiling 535 yards with quarterback Drew Henson passing for 312 yards and four touchdowns.
Tailback Anthony Thomas rushed for 199 yards and three touchdowns and receivers Marquise Walker and David Terrell each caught nine passes for more than 100 yards, with three of Terrell's receptions going for touchdowns.
When Boilermakers coach Joe Tiller of Toledo introduced “Basketball on grass,” his version of the spread offense, at Purdue in 1997, it caught the stoic Big Ten off guard, but no one was ready, or possibly able, to switch.
But now add Northwestern, with a much more revolutionary version of the spread offense, and it appears time to take notice. Maybe the days of tight ends and fullbacks are numbered.
“At one point last Saturday I can remember saying, `Hey, this is fun, isn't it?' when we were huddled up with the offensive team, because it was fun,” Carr said. “If you were in that game and you were on the offensive side of the ball you had a good time. If you were on defense, you were miserable.”
Especially if you were not left holding the chalk.