August 04, 2009
Part of the Doc's Big East Week.
It's still too early to predict the trajectory of Rich Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan or the ultimate legacy of "his offense," a specific blend of shotgun/read option looks that's always been more run-oriented than almost any of its spread cohorts. But his critics will always have to give Rod this: For two-and-a-half years at West Virginia, the system he's largely credited with introducing and refining produced one of the most dominant offensive runs of the modern era. You can point to the date it started: Oct. 15, 2005, when Rodriguez permanently benched pedestrian starter Adam Bednarik for redshirt freshman Pat White and unleashed true freshman Steve Slaton for five touchdowns in a comeback upset over Louisville. From that point on, WVU won its last five games, ran circles around Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, went 22-4 over the next two years, joined Navy as the only offenses in the country over 3,000 yards rushing three years in a row and was the only team over six yards per carry in both 2006 and http://www.cfbstats.com/2007/leader/national/team/offense/split01/category01/sort02.html">2007. It was legitimately the most feared running game anywhere.
Even minus Rodriguez, Slaton and longtime offensive coordinator Calvin McGee, it should have been that way last year, too, with White, Noel Devine in the Slaton role and six offensive linemen with significant starting experience. But although the scheme didn't seem to change substantially (White and Devine themselves carried about as many times as White and Slaton had averaged the previous three years), WVU's yield on the ground fell from just shy of 300 yards per game to 210, and the scoring average dropped by more than two touchdowns. The offense became slightly more pass-oriented as the year went on: White attempted more passes in the last five games than he did in the entirety of 2005 and averaged more than 20 passes for the season for the first time. By the time the bowl game rolled around, the offense was committed to spreading the ball around, and White responded by throwing for 332 yards in the one-point win over North Carolina, smashing his previous career high by more than 100 yards in his final start. It was the first time he'd really been asked to attack a defense downfield over an entire game, as opposed to the mostly short, horizontal nature of RichRod's passing game.
And with that, it seems, the spread 'n shred is dead, or at least on its death bed. Before spring practice, Bill Stewart talked about "build[ing] the passing game from the bowl" around new quarterback Jarrett Brown, a much bigger, more pocket-bound guy who's always been given a larger share of the passing game when he sees the field in relief, and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen began extolling the virtues of "balance." With Brown and five of last year's top six receivers in tow, the spring game offered a glimpse of a very different mindset this fall: Brown dropped back on 24 of 34 snaps in the first half, and receivers Wes Lyons, Alric Arnett and Bradley Starks combined for 17 catches. They regularly lined up in the I-formation.
All of which suggests this scheme will be more fully Mullen's than last year's, when White's athleticism commanded a system, (i.e. the existing spread 'n shred) that fit his spectacular running ability. But even then, it didn't seem that their heart was completely in it:
Even when passing more often, the Mountaineers were slightly less productive than in Rodriguez's final two seasons, at the expense of a ground game that went from dominant to merely solid. And much of that decline was attributed to White himself, whose yards per carry plummeted by more than a yard-and-a-half from its 2007 number, itself a drop from the seven-plus yards White averaged as an underclassman. Nothing was in sync the way it had been under Rodriguez.
With Brown's bigger arm and sturdier frame in the pocket and Mullen's philosophy fully suffused into the offense, White's loss may not be as foreboding as it initially seems -- in fact, if the towering Lyons fulfills his promise as a deep threat, there's at least as much skill talent on this offense for Mullen's more conventional approach as there was on its prolific predecessors for Rodriguez's scheme. (Blocking will be an issue with only one starting lineman back, which will be the biggest issue in any case.) If they don't exactly reach those staggering heights, the new-look Mountaineers can at least make up some of the huge chunks of ground they gave up in last year's transition.