Ameer UCLA

Football in Time and Space

“College football is changing a little bit as far as you see a lot of different offenses. Week-to-week you are going to be challenged in a lot of different ways, you just have to make sure you execute. The day and age when you could just shut out everyone is probably over, especially when you are playing a spread team.”

That was part of Bo Pelini’s answer on Monday as to why Nebraska gave up a near-record 653 yards of offense to UCLA last Saturday. It was part of an answer to why the Blackshirts defense hasn’t looked like itself for about a year now.

Why has college football changed? Part of the answer to that question – a large part actually – will be standing on the sideline opposite of Pelini this Saturday.

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College football is a game of stories and few are more folkloric than the story of new Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn.

A walk-on wide receiver who wasn’t good enough to make the cut at Arkansas, Malzahn got his start in coaching at tiny Hughes (Ark.) High School as a defensive coordinator in 1991. One year later he was promoted to head coach, meaning he had to come up with an offense as well.

He turned to a seventh-grade basketball team he coached in his spare time for inspiration. Noticing how a fast-break tempo forced opposing teams into mistakes, Malzahn decides to apply the concept to football. He then picks up a copy of “The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football” and, as he told Sports Illustrated in 2011, “went by it word-for-word.”

Eleven years, three schools, a few national passing records, and two state titles later, Malzahn has a scheme – based in equal part on borrowed basketball theory and a dusty old football offense – he’s ready to call his own. He writes his own book in 2003: “The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy.”

Today you can see a lot of Malzahn’s principles every Saturday in college games across the country. You see parts of it at Nebraska every Saturday.

“Defenses have figured out ways to play the spread and look at alignments, tendencies and personnel. The faster you go the less likely it is that (defenses) can gather all that information.”

That’s offensive coordinator Tim Beck on Tuesday explaining why the Huskers are upping the pace offensively. The legacy of Malzahn right now — it could change — is that he made that realization 20 years ago.

Tracing the provenance of football innovation is never a black-and-white proposition. Coaches beg, borrow, and steal to find the scheme that gives them the best chance of winning. Sam Wyche ran the no-huddle offense with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984. The Delaware Wing-T was “invented” in 1950.

The interesting thing about Malzahn is not necessarily his inventiveness, but his willingness to use whatever works. Arkansas coach Houston Nutt plucked him from the high school ranks in 2006 to serve as the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator. After one game – a 50-14 pounding at the hands of USC – Nutt scrapped Malzahn’s up-tempo offense but the pair adjusted. Using some of the same Wing-T concepts Malzahn had used in high school, the Razorbacks ran the Wildcat offense, with future pros Darren McFadden and Felix Jones carrying the load, all the way to the SEC title game.

Malzahn left Arkansas after that season, going to Tulsa to serve as co-offensive coordinator along with Rich Rodriguez disciple Herb Hand. The 2007 squad may have represented the ideal Malzahn offense. The Golden Hurricane ran the ball 562 times and threw it 564, leading the country in offense with 543.9 yards per game.

Two years later, Malzahn was at Auburn. In year one he turned the 104th ranked offense into the 16th ranked offense. In year two he had Cam Newton, a quarterback whose only college game experience came at a Texas junior college. No matter. Malzahn gave him a passing game he could execute and adapted the Power-O – one of football’s oldest and ultimate manly plays – for the shotgun, zone read era. Newton ran it to a Heisman Trophy and national title.

Following the 2011 season, Malzahn left Auburn and his $1 million salary to become a head coach for the first time at the college level. In April of last year he told a Portland radio station that his plan was to “run the same offense I ran in high school” at Arkansas State.

That should make things plenty interesting for Nebraska on Saturday.

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It’s not easy to pinpoint what has been missing from Nebraska’s defense for the past 15 games, but something is. Maybe it’s talent, maybe it’s experience. Since the start of the 2011 season, Nebraska has given up an average of 364.8 yards per game. That’s not bad — it’s almost exactly average nationally — but it is a drop-off from the 287.3 yards per game Nebraska allowed under Pelini in his first three years at the helm.

The one thing you can count on this Saturday, however, is that whatever Nebraska’s weaknesses are, Arkansas State will be in a position to find them. Forget for a moment the no-huddle and Wing-T talk and when you boil down Malzahn’s offensive philosophy you get something like this: Increase the likelihood for defensive mistakes. Exploit those mistakes.

It’s a philosophy that, if executed, can win regardless of talent level. Malzahn does this in two ways:

1)   Time – As Beck said this week, tempo makes a defense have to react quickly and correctly. The offense knows where it wants to go. The defense does not. It’s not a complicated idea, but Malzahn has been preaching it, and coaching it, for two decades now.

2)   Space – In 2010, Malzahn and Auburn engineered a 17-point comeback against a vicious Alabama defense largely by running where the Tide was not. The Tigers recognized what Alabama wanted to do at the line of scrimmage and avoided it. Again, simple, but few teams can do that out of as many different sets and looks as Arkansas State can. They are the definition of multiple and football is almost like Tetris for Malzahn. What fits best and where?

There’s also the balance. Through two games this season Arkansas State has run 87 passing plays and 91 running plays. All of the buzz words – tempo, multiple, balance — the Nebraska staff has used to describe the Nebraska offense for the past five years? That’s the bedrock of what Malzahn does.

Against this offense, pursuit and discipline will be key for Nebraska. The Huskers have lacked a sustained pass rush from the front four this year but that won’t be a factor on Saturday. The Red Wolves passing plays are so quick they’re nearly running plays. The runs are full of misdirection and deception. When people think no-huddle they think passing, but Malzahn has always viewed his offense as a run-first, play-action offense. Nebraska will be forced to defend sideline to sideline and, yes, tackle.

Which brings up the discipline part of the equation. Arkansas State will be more than happy to take little bites out of the Huskers and wait for a mistake big enough to feast on. They have to. Malzahn’s offense might minimize talent discrepancies but it doesn’t eliminate them.

That makes the talk from the staff that Nebraska could make some changes defensively this week very interesting. Pelini has always been reluctant to throw players to the wolves before they’re ready but the struggles against UCLA may have forced his hand. There’s a chance linebackers Zaire Anderson and David Santos could see their first real game action on Saturday as could cornerback Mohammed Seisay. There’s a lot to learn before then.

“When a playbook’s harder than your homework, that’s a problem,” Anderson told the Omaha World-Herald this week. “I think it’s harder than my homework.”

Contrast that with the mantra Malzahn has preached since he first started out coaching at that tiny little Arkansas high school just outside of Memphis: “If you’re thinking, you’re not playing.”

Nebraska is still better than a three-touchdown favorite in this game. It’s hard to see the Red Wolves slowing down the Huskers offense much and on the other side of the ball Arkansas State still has to execute its plan with only two games under its belt with the new staff.

But from a purely defensive perspective, it’s hard to envision a better test for the humbled Huskers defense than Arkansas State under Gus Malzahn.