CHICAGO: Whenever it rains over Doyt Perry Stadium, the water drips down from the ceiling onto the table inside the offensive coaches’ meeting room on the campus of Bowling Green. At least it did in 2001, when Urban Meyer was the new, young coach who huddled with his assistants in that damp, dank room for 10 hours a day in February and March.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, Meyer and his bright staff of future head coaches were helping to revolutionize offenses in college football. Every day, they pored over every intricate detail, such as how to huddle up and what type of snap count to use. They were pioneers on the football field, and they were truly winging it.
They had learned the spread offense at Louisville and studied Northwestern and West Virginia a little bit, but they were sculpting their own philosophy as they went.
“There was no other model,” Meyer said Friday during the Big Ten’s media days. “We watched them a little bit, but we developed our own. Imagine having to go build something, but there’s no book to build it. We really enjoyed it.”
Of all the changes Meyer will make at Ohio State, his offensive look will easily be the most drastic.
The Buckeyes ranked 115th out of 120 teams last year in passing. They beat Illinois in a game in which they completed just one pass — it went for a touchdown. Meyer did not hide his amazement Friday for how inept Ohio State was at passing the ball last year, calling it “inadequate” and “non-functional.”
“You can’t win. You lose more than you win if you can’t throw,” Meyer said. “Our whole season is banked on that. We have to be able to throw the ball.”
The responsibility for that falls on sophomore Braxton Miller, who was much better equipped to run the ball than throw it last year. Meyer has been gushing about Miller’s ability since before he took the job and Friday called him “the most dynamic athlete I’ve ever coached at quarterback.”
Meyer has also coached a No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft in Alex Smith and a Heisman Trophy winner in Tim Tebow.
“What I just said, people should go, ‘Whoa,’ ” Meyer said. “And [Miller] is, by far. That’s how good an athlete he is.”
The quarterback easily has the most responsibility — and the most complex assignments — of any position on Meyer’s team. Whereas a number of quarterbacks, even spread quarterbacks, simply turn and hand the ball off on a fair percentage of plays, Meyer’s quarterbacks have to make crucial decisions on nearly every play.
“The one thing about our offense, you can’t have a bad quarterback,” Meyer said. “It’s kind of harsh to say that. And the quarterback can’t have a bad day or you’ll lose.”
The origins of Meyer’s offensive approach can be traced back to a road trip and a new toothbrush.
Lessons at Notre Dame
Until the late 1990s, Meyer’s knowledge of offense consisted of I formations and pro sets. But as wide receivers coach at Notre Dame in 1999, Meyer realized it was becoming increasingly difficult to move the ball on offense.
He saw Louisville was using some creative formations, so he asked then-Irish coach Bob Davie for permission to take Dan Mullen, then a graduate assistant, and drive to Louisville to meet with coach John L. Smith and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
Meyer and Mullen stayed four days, soaking up every nuance while grabbing spare clothes, a toothbrush and other toiletries at local stores.
“I was so enamored with this style of play,” Meyer said. “It was spread the field, but be extremely aggressive.”
With less protection up front, Meyer asked how they picked up a free safety blitz. The response astonished him: Louisville hadn’t seen a free safety blitz in four years because they could see the entire play in front of them.
He gathered all the information and returned to South Bend, Ind. When he took the job at Bowling Green two years later, he made Mullen his quarterbacks coach and hired Gregg Brandon to run the offense — the spread offense.
Pressuring the ends
In the simplest terms, Meyer’s offensive philosophy is simply to stress the defensive ends.
“We want to take their best player, which is usually a defensive end, and we want him to put both feet in the ground and [pause],” Meyer said.
Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller revolutionized the Big Ten with his pass-first offense, which earned the nickname “basketball on grass.” Meyer hates that term and bristles at any comparison between the two.
“I always tell our coaches, you won’t coach here very long if I ever hear that come out of your mouth,” Meyer said. “It’s power football from spread sets.”
Not everyone was an immediate believer. First-year Illinois coach Tim Beckman was Meyer’s first defensive coordinator. Beckham was curious to see the results.
“I knew he had a great vision,” Beckman said. “I thought he had great ideas and it was interesting what he was talking about.”
Former Buckeyes coach Earle Bruce, who mentored Meyer, was more blunt. He was shocked at what Meyer was trying to do and asked flatly, “What the hell is this?”
Meyer told him it was the same off-tackle running plays Bruce ran for years, just out of different sets.
“He started watching it and he actually loved it,” Meyer said.
The results were hard to dispute. With fewer than 55 scholarship players, Bowling Green went to Missouri and stunned the Tigers. When he was the coach at Utah, Meyer’s Utes exploded for nearly 700 yards in a win over North Carolina. The Tar Heels returned the next week to beat the Miami Hurricanes.
“We were the novelty and people couldn’t get lined up,” Meyer said. “It’s not that we had that much better players, they just had a hard time with what it was.”
The quarterback’s top duty in Jim Tressel’s offense was not to turn the ball over. That remains true with Meyer, who stresses the importance of ball safety. In fact, Meyer’s overall philosophy for winning is similar to Tressel’s — play great defense, don’t turn the ball over, score in the red zone and win the kicking game.
“You don’t throw picks, and if you do, you’re out,” Meyer said of his quarterbacks. “Quarterback is not the position to take chances. Some people use the term gunslinger. We don’t have gunslingers and risky players at quarterback. I never have and I won’t do that.”
Whether or not Miller ultimately evolves into Meyer’s dream quarterback remains to be seen, but he has all the ingredients. Meyer likes his arm strength and is dazzled by his acceleration, calling it his best asset.
When players report for camp next week, Meyer and Miller will begin installing Ohio State’s revamped offense.
The roof on top of the Horseshoe is secure, and the tables inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center are dry. Meyer has traveled a great distance since those early days at Bowling Green. His offense, once ridiculed and misunderstood, is what got him here.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.