A couple weeks back, some friends and I hung out while College Gameday played on mute. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer came on the screen, sparking a discussion. A friend said, “He always has that look on his face like he knows something no one else does.” I found the description to be pretty apt. College football fans generally dislike and distrust Meyer. His health “problems,” recruiting tactics, and brash personality rub people the wrong way.
Making matters worse, he is a remarkable coach, consistently fielding excellent, well-prepared teams. If an opponent doesn’t come to play, things get ugly and Meyer’s teams are always relentless. It is no surprise that he is often accused of running up the score on lesser teams. Clemson better be ready or the result may be similar to their last trip to the Orange Bowl.
The spread offense has always been Meyer’s calling card. Some would argue that he is one of the moguls of the modern spread attack. Interestingly, as an assistant, he worked in systems that favored old-school, power football schemes. Moreover, he never served as a coordinator. Instead, on his own time, he studied what others were doing in more wide-open attacks and honed his ideas about how an offense should look.
Obviously, Meyer did not invent the spread offense, but he has been its most successful advocate. In 2001, Meyer earned his first head coaching opportunity at Bowling Green. As Chris Brown explains in “The Evolution of Urban Meyer and His Spread Option Offense,” after getting the job, Meyer and his Bowling Green coaches visited the offensive staffs at Louisville, Purdue, Northwestern, and West Virginia, all of which were running some version of a spread offense.
Following these meetings, Meyer and his staff fused various established ideas and created the first “Urban Meyer offense,” an offense that has been evolving ever since. As a result, Bowling Green improved from 2-9 to 8-3 in Meyer’s first year. Typically, the system features the quarterback in the shotgun, a single back, and either four wide receivers or three receivers and a tight end. This personnel and their wide alignments stretches the defense from sideline to sideline.
Without getting too specific, Meyer’s offense can be summarized by always looking for and attacking areas where his team as leverage, or a numbers advantage. Once aligned, the play that ensues depends largely upon how the defense lines up. Should they play with two deep safeties and put defenders directly over receivers, then look for OSU to run the football against an undermanned box (the defenders aligned between the two offensive tackles or tight ends). On the flip side, if the defense crowds the box (leaves the linebackers inside), the Buckeyes will throw quick passes and screens.
It’s simple math, which revolves around having a dual-threat quarterback (i.e. Braxton Miller, Tim Tebow, Alex Smith, etc.). For instance, say the offense aligns with four wide outs and one back, the defense would be able to play gap-sound run defense with only six defenders in the box if the QB is not a run threat. Essentially, there would be six defenders versus five blockers (the offensive line), so one defender would always be free to make the tackle. A dual-threat QB, however, can “read” or “option” this unblocked defender. Thus, the defense has a difficult choice to make: do they sacrifice pass coverage by bringing an extra defender into the box or attempt to play shorthanded versus the run?
During the Orange Bowl, count the number of defenders in the box and you’ll likely know whether Ohio State will run or pass the ball. If the Buckeyes use four WRs, and defense counters with six or less defenders in the box, expect a run. And, of course, if OSU adds a TE into the box, then the defense needs an eighth man to remain-gap sound. Again, in essence, Meyer is simply trying to attack the area where his team has a numbers advantage.
His offense should appear similar to Clemson fans, who have become accustomed to Chad Morris’ version of the spread. The two run many of the same plays and love to attack with “reads” and “options,” highlighting the importance of having a QB with wheels.
At each stop, Meyer’s offenses have put up gaudy numbers—and this OSU team may be his best yet. With Braxton Miller and company having a year of experience in the system, the Buckeyes rank 7th in the nation in total offense, averaging nearly 519 yards per game, and 4th in scoring, 46.3 points per game. Needless to say, Brent Venables will have his hands full.
Although Meyer is known for offense, let’s not forget his commitment great defense. In his six seasons at Florida, the Gators finished in the top 10 in the nation in total defense a mind-boggling five times. He has not been able to field that caliber of defense yet at OSU, but the Buckeyes are not as bad as some pundits will have you believe. They stand at 21st in the nation in scoring and 29th in total defense—certainly not the marks of a “bad” defense.
No matter what one thinks of Urban Meyer, his success is unquestionable. In 12 seasons as a head coach, he has compiled an absurd 128-24 record with two national titles. Among coaches with over 100 wins, his winning percentage is by far the highest (.842). Yes, even (significantly) better than Nick Saban.
And, rest assured, the Buckeyes will be prepared for Clemson. Meyer is 7-1 in bowl games, including a perfect 5-0 in the BCS. But, because of the greatness of Meyer and the Buckeyes, the Orange Bowl presents a tremendous opportunity for Dabo Swinney and Clemson football. If the Tigers top Meyer, it would certainly be the biggest win of Swinney’s young career, and arguably mark Clemson’s best season since winning the national championship in 1981.