There’s no doubt that so-called “gimmick” offenses scare defensive coordinators, but they probably spook offensive coordinators just as much. Preying on deception and confusion, these strategies frequently break down even the most disciplined defenses, and sometimes the offenses trying to run them.
Yale football understands the roller coaster that teams with “gimmick” offenses ride. The Bulldogs instead choose to rely on a dominant offensive line and a back that makes one cut before hitting holes. By controlling the clock, Yale dictates the game. This steady approach rarely produces spectacular offensive displays — save Mike McCleod ’09 — but rarely fails.
Let’s start with the spread offense. Flashback to Miami, site of the Orange Bowl, about a year and a half ago. Nobody expected Urban Meyer’s Utah squad to make the 2006 Orange Bowl and nobody expected Alex Smith, Meyer’s quarterback in that game and the first overall draft pick the following April, to perform as poorly as he did. One of the main reasons for Meyer’s success and Smith’s failure was Utah’s spread offense.
The “spread offense,” popularized by Mike Leach at Texas Tech and brought to prominence in the 2006 Orange Bowl, is the natural evolution of Steve Spurrier’s “Fun ’n’ Gun” offense. The scheme provides hope for even the smallest programs within all tiers of football. The true beauty of many current spread offenses is that they allow weaker teams to neutralize the advantages of more talented defenses. The resulting shootout affords the underdog a chance to win.
Largely as a result of the spread, college football now has more parity than ever. Teams that run it frequently pull off upsets that nobody would think possible (see Appalachian State’s 2007 shocker over Michigan in The Big House in the first week of the college season).
Spreading the field, however, is not the only way teams attempt to perform the unthinkable and shock America with a remarkable upset.
With time winding down in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, Boise State found itself trailing in the biggest game of the program’s history. First-year head coach Chris Petersen knew his squad was not as talented as the Oklahoma team they faced, and that his offense could not attempt to move the ball conventionally. So he resorted to trickery. Petersen called for the hook-and-ladder, an antiquated play supposedly useless against modern defenses. The Broncos scored. Instead of kicking the extra point, the coach diagrammed the “statue of liberty play,” the quintessential example of trickery, to convert the two point conversion and win the game.
Teams that run the spread offense, or an offense laden with trick plays, know that even the smallest Davids can fell the largest Goliaths. Even teams that consistently lack top-tier talent, like Hawaii and Texas Tech, can compete for conference titles year in and year out. These “gimmick” offenses allow for a level of competitiveness and equality in college football unequaled in any other sport.
But these offenses have one drawback: they lack consistency. When balanced teams with more conventional offenses fail in one aspect of their attack, they can rely on other types of plays to move the ball. For example, many Big Ten schools rely on more conventional run-based offenses. But when the run game finds no holes, the quarterback is prepared to win the game through the air. When spread offenses have a bad day, they struggle to find a fallback plan. The spread truly allows for only one refined dimension, either a running game in the case of a spread option or a wide-open passing game in the case of the more traditional spread offenses. The other half of the offense atrophies. Spread option teams must rely on quarterbacks not used to throwing. Likewise, pass-first spread-offense teams must rely on undersized, quicker offensive lines to clear space to run the ball.
The same can be said for trick plays: they’re great when the work, but often they don’t.
It seems that gimmick offenses claim spectacular victories and suffer miserable defeats with equal frequency. Boise State had high hopes for this season. They were ranked in the preseason polls and finally enjoyed the respect they thought they deserved. Their week two loss to Washington almost erased the gains of their Fiesta Bowl miracle. The reason for the loss: Chris Petersen’s bag of tricks ran out. Boise State managed to eke out only 10 points.
Appalachian State’s spread offense fell victim to the same disappointment. Just a few weeks after their stunning victory at Michigan, Appalachian State suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of a mediocre Wofford squad. Washington and Wofford did not win the games, the favorites lost them. The failure of gimmick offenses leads to devastating collapses that likely would not happen with more traditional offensive schemes.
Yale understands tradition. The Bulldogs’ power running game may not be flashy, but it puts points on the board week after week. It allows the Yale defense to stay rested. It allows the quarterback to manage the game through the air. It is, unlike flashier offenses, a model of consistency. Yale may never experience a roller coaster run like Urban Meyer’s 2006 Utah team did, but fans and players will be content to grind out win after win and Ivy Championship after Ivy Championship.
Collin Gutman is a sophomore in Pierson College.