Huskies face another spread: Findlay

HOUGHTON – This is not your father’s Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Heck, it’s not even your older brother’s.

In a conference that used to be synonymous with smash-mouth football, this season more than any other illustrates how quickly the blocking tight end and fullback have gone the way of vinyl and the rotary phone. Sure, some people still use them, but it is a rarity to be marveled at now, and an excuse to tell your kids about the good ol’ days.

With the Huskies heading to Findlay (1-2, 0-2 conference) this Saturday it will make the third straight game Tech’s defense prepares for a standard spread-offense.

Four-wide, jet sweeps and bubble screens are the norm now, not a gimmick to adjust to.

According to Tech head coach Tom Kearly, nine of the Huskies’ 10 games will be against predominantly spread offenses, with only Grand Valley State as the exception. Even Tech now, for all its commitment to power-running and the fullback belly, still exclusively operate from the pistol formation with three wide receivers more often than not.

“I told our defensive staff that other than Grand Valley next week, I don’t know if they will see a tight end until I don’t know,” Kearly said. “Because then we have Northern (Michigan) and Northwood, and I’ve seen both of them on film, and they don’t have tight ends. Then it is Ferris, and they aren’t a tight end team. So yeah, that is where it is going.

“It is a trickle-down effect from pros to colleges and you are seeing it in high school now – Texas high school football is all spreads. When I was growing up in high school and college it was the wishbone.”

For Lake Linden-Hubbell graduate and starting “alley” linebacker Brett Gervais, it has been a complete 180 adjusting from the triple-option he ran under coach Andy Crouch and was oh-so prevalent in the Great Western Conference.

“It’s completely opposite. A totally different ball game from Lake Linden. It probably took me a full year to even get acclimated to watching it on film,” Gervais, a redshirt sophomore, said of the spread offense. “When I was in high school I would drop back to cover pass maybe 10 times a game? Now I’m trying to hawk a ball every play it seems like.”

So why has everybody made the switch from traditional pro-sets or even archaic option offenses to spread attacks?

Because it’s working.

Through the admittedly small sample size of three games, nine schools have started the year averaging over 30 points per game and over 400 yards per contest in the GLIAC.

One theory Kearly touched on, is the spread offense has found a way to exploit the two weakest spots of modern defense.

First, tackling. The goal of spread teams on most plays is to get their best players the ball in a one-on-one situation. Make one guy miss, and a two-yard pass or lateral run behind the line of scrimmage turns into first down or more. And with defensive units deemphasizing full tackling in practice more and more each year for injury prevention purposes, tackling becomes a lost art.

“No question, the ability to tackle in space (is crucial),” Kearly said. “That was what I was most concerned about because as an organization, we have made a decision to do the majority of our hitting by and large in the spring. That is when we try to develop our toughness and physicality. In the fall, we only go (full tackle), twice. It makes it difficult to simulate tackling though.”

The second tenet of the spread offense is it makes a defense think. With a variety of different looks and read-option plays to digest, a defensive player has more diagnostic responsibilities than ever before.

And if you are thinking, you are not reacting. And then you’re dead on your feet.

“You really have to stay disciplined with the game plan,” Gervais said. “Coach puts us in the right situations and the correct calls. So you have to stay disciplined with where you are supposed to be, and getting there at the right time. Watching film helps so much too, because then you trust what you are doing on each down.”

While Tech has passed its first two spread tests with flying colors – the Huskies rank first in the conference in points allowed per game (10.5) and yards allowed per game (197) by a large margin – Kearly believes the first stiff test of the season awaits them this Saturday.

Findlay may have dropped its first two conference games, but at 520 yards per weekend and over 35 points a contest, it was through no fault of the offense.

While schematically Findlay is very similar to Walsh, the personnel are much better qualified to challenge the Huskies’ sterling defensive record.

“This is by far the best offensive team that we have played to date,” Kearly said. “That is what I told our staff in our meeting today, that this is a key game. If we have a chance to stop this offense, then we have a chance to be pretty good.”