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Governor's Cup: Can Kentucky Stop The Spread?

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Kentucky expects the Louisville Cardinals, led by former Urban Meyer assistant Charlie Strong, to run the spread option against them on Saturday.  Kentucky has a much younger defense than last year, even though there is significant returning experience.  Can this younger defense handle the spread option, which has been used with great effect against UK teams in the last few years?

Senior Kentucky defensive end DeQuin Evans thinks so:

"It's so much stuff flying around everywhere," Evans said. "You've got to read the pulling guard, you've got to read the option. The spread option goes off the defense making a mistake, so if you make one mistake, they're going to have a big play. But if everybody is gap sound and does their job on defense, we can shut them down."

Sounds pretty technical to me.  So what is DeQuin Evans talking about when he says, "gap sound?"  For those of us who are basketball fans first, we understand things like "high pick and roll," or "down screen," but the A- and B- gap in football may sound mysterious.

More after the jump.

A Gap Primer

"Gaps" in football are quite simply the areas in between the players on the offensive line.  The "A-Gap" is the gaps between the guard and the center, on either side.  Thus, there are 2 A-Gaps, one left and one right.  The B-Gap, quite logically, is the next gap over, between the guard and the tackle on either side.  The C-Gap is the between the tackle and the tight end, but here is where it gets interesting.

Modern football does not usually use two tight ends - it most often uses wide receivers, and the D-Gap is the space off the outside shoulder of the tight end.  The E-Gap is most often considered the space off the inside shoulder of the wide receiver.

Essentially, saying "gap sound" means controlling the gap you are responsible for on defense.  That requires that you defeat your blocker by not allowing him to block you, either by moving him where he is unable to keep you from making the play, or keeping him in the way of the play.  If you plug the gap with his body or yours, the net result is the same -- there is no hole for the runner to get through.

A Spread Option Refresher

The idea behind the spread option is to spread the offensive line out wider than normal so that the offensive line stretches nearly from sideline to sideline.  The purpose of this is to expand the size of the gaps, giving backs a "bubble" of space to start with, no matter which gap the play is designed to attack.  It forces defenders to guard larger areas, and the idea behind this is to give teams with greater speed the advantage.  The bigger and less athletic you are on defense, the harder it is to control wider gaps, and isolating great athletes in space is what makes the spread option such a dangerous and explosive offense.

The big key, though, is to have athletes that can take advantage of the wider spaces created by the spread.  It does no good at all to have large bubbles of space if your backs are not quick or athletic enough to take advantage of them.  That is why the spread has been so effective at Florida -- they recruit the most athletic players possible, which makes them built for exploiting the larger gaps of the spread offense.

The Urban Meyer "gun zone" is a read version of the triple option offense run from a spread formation.  The setup places the slot receiver in motion, then the quarterback reads the reaction of the weak-side defensive end and outside linebacker:

If the DE chases the running back down the line of scrimmage, the QB keeps the ball and turns his attention to the OLB with the slot receiver now his option. If the LB commits to the QB, he pitches, if not, he keeps it. "You have to be sound against the option and be solid against the dive back and the quarterback and you have to take care of the pitch," the defensive coordinator said. "What they try to do is read the box and see how many you have to defend the run and what you are going to commit to the passing game. They are trying to locate your defenders and call the play based on your alignment.

All in all, a very effective triple option, but it does depend on having the athletes and football skill to take advantage of it.

What all this means for the Governor's Cup

The big questions for Louisville offensively are these:

  • Do they have the athleticism and speed necessary to run the spread effectively against Kentucky?
  • The quarterback is the most critical player in a spread attack, particularly if running triple options out of it.  Is Cardinal QB Adam Froman talented and athletic enough to run this type of attack, an offense he has never run before?
  • Louisville returns a pretty fair offensive line, but can they learn the spread schemes quickly enough to open holes for Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson, who are certainly athletic enough to exploit them.
  • Does Louisville have a credible receiving threat for times when running and short passing will not do?

For Kentucky's defense, the questions are these:

  • Can the new-look Kentucky defense play with the gap discipline it takes to defend the spread option?
  • The most important thing to stop for any defense is the run, and Louisville's offensive strength should be run offense.  Kentucky lost a lot of their defensive line experience last year, and with a relatively young linebacking corps, Louisville will try to exploit those two factors. Can they?
  • Last year, even with a more experienced defense, Kentucky had trouble getting off the field in third down situations.  Can they change that against the Cardinals this year?
  • Will the spread nullify the overall athletic advantage the Wildcats have?

All these questions will be answered for certain in just two and one half days.