LAWRENCE — Kansas football coach Mark Mangino does not think that the "spread is dead," which is a good thing for the Jayhawks, considering they don't know how to play any other style of offense.
But Mangino and his staff can't help but notice the different way other Big 12 North teams are winning games during KU's current four-game losing streak. Last weekend, Kansas State ran the ball 43 times, threw it 16 times and beat Kansas, which threw it 41 times. Later on, Nebraska ran it 43 times, threw it 14 times and beat Oklahoma, which threw it 58 times.
The Wildcats and Huskers, with unexciting offensive philosophies, are now the frontrunners to win the North in what had become during the past two seasons a wild, point-crazy Big 12. KU and Missouri, with their high-tech spread attacks, are both cellar-dwellers at 1-4.
"More and more teams in our conference are slowly but surely fading out of the spread offense," Mangino said. "I think it goes back to the old adage that coaches want to run the ball, control the clock and play great defense. What did Woody Hayes say? 'When you throw the ball, a lot of bad things can happen.'"
Woody probably would not have understood what was happening in 2007 and 2008. Teams took risk after risk and didn't pay for it very often as defenses sat back on their heels and tried to react to what offenses were showing them. In 2007, the Jayhawks were out in front of it all with their no-huddle scheme, which allowed players to line up and look to the sideline for play calls. For most of two years, KU's offense played dictator.
In 2009, defenses have answered, and the Jayhawks have spent each week in reactionary mode, tinkering away for four quarters and hoping that eventually something will click. It hasn't very often, and KU is not alone in its struggle.
Across the league, teams this season are averaging 40 fewer yards of offense per game than last season. Texas A&M is the only team that has improved, increasing its output by 137 yards per game thanks to a better understanding of second-year coach Mike Sherman's system. Sherman would be wise to not get too comfortable. Defenses have shown that they will get to the bottom of whatever is working, and they'll do it faster than anybody could have thought.
"Football is an everchanging deal," KU offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "You have to stay one step ahead. Whatever becomes the most popular thing, that's what people work on to stop. Then something else will pop up. So it's just a competitive business with smart people on both sides of the ball."
So how did the defenses change the tide? Simple. They stopped playing scared. Warinner said the main difference is that defenses are playing more man-to-man coverage. In Big 12 play, KU has seen man-to-man about 50 percent of the time after seeing mostly zone in past years. Warinner expects Nebraska to play man-to-man every snap this weekend.
"It's more effective against pass offenses because you have less space to throw," Warinner said. "You can get guys open, but instead of getting guys open by three yards, they're open by one foot or two feet, so the precision of the passing game changes in man coverage."
Defenses are getting pressure from their front four thanks to athletic defensive lines. Teams that can't get pressure with the front four don't hesitate to dial up blitzes. Man-to-man coverage makes it imperative that a team's front seven can stop the run because the defensive backs are chasing wide receivers. KU, with its lackluster running game, has not been able to take advantage.
Even the KU defense seems to have improved against the spread as this season has progressed. The Jayhawks kept Texas Tech in check for three quarters thanks to a persistent pass rush from their front four, something that they didn't have in the past. But while KU has improved against the spread, the Jayhawks were dominated in the second half against K-State by a run-heavy scheme.
"It just adds a new challenge," KU cornerbacks coach Je'Ney Jackson said. "Now you've got to go up there and tackle those 230-pound running backs. No one has really lined up and just tried to run it 45 or however many times (K-State) ran it in a game. That was a very different approach."
Mangino said that KU will not change its approach this season. He said throwing the ball out of a spread offense fits the Jayhawks' current personnel best. But what about next season, when their nucleus of skill position players is gone? Mangino said he wouldn't be shocked if the wishbone, which has been effective the past two seasons at Georgia Tech, made a comeback within the next few seasons.
"It's going to change," Mangino said. "It's like old clothes. Hold onto them. They'll go back in style."