It was the 2011 BCS title game and the fast-paced offense of the Oregon Ducks was facing off against Cam Newton and the powerful Auburn attack. The Ducks were playing at a blistering pace that year, averaging one play every 21 seconds on offense. Auburn had the ability to go up-tempo as well and had two touchdown drives in under a minute in the SEC Championship Game that year. The game between Oregon and Auburn featured 158 offensive snaps and almost 1,000 yards of offense. Despite the game being a low scoring affair (Auburn won 22-19), that title game brought tempo into the spotlight of college football. Today teams continue to go fast on offense. One of those teams is Utah State. But for head coach Matt Wells, being up-tempo is about more than just pace of play. Up-tempo defines this Utah State team.
When the Aggies take the field on offense they want to be aggressive. “It’s our mindset that we want to push the pace and we want to blitz the defense,” Coach Wells said. The Aggies are first in the Mountain West in possessions per game at over 15. By limiting the amount of time between snaps the Aggies have less time to think and only have time to execute. In order to execute you must have an aggressive mindset, which is exactly what Coach Wells wants for his team. He told me, “The pace and the tempo of our offense is who we are.”
Tempo of course has its tactical advantages as well. The faster you go on offense, the less time the defense has to prepare. Going fast forces the hand of the defense. There isn’t much time to disguise a blitz when you are struggling to get lined up. In fact, sometimes the opposition fails to get lined up, which often results in a big play for the Aggie offense. But a fast pace not only impacts how the defense gets lined up, it also impacts who is on the field.
After a big third down conversion you’ll often see an offense try to run another play as quickly as possible. This is because defenses often use different personnel groups on third down. By running a play quickly, you don’t allow your opponent to substitute, which means the players they want to be on the field for first down will be on the sideline. The only way a defense can combat this is by not substituting in the first place, which is to the offense’s advantage.
Additionally, going up-tempo can really take its toll on defensive linemen. The D-line covers a lot more ground than the O-line on most plays and that difference in exertion is magnified when you go fast. Those 300 pound defensive tackles start sucking wind and all of a sudden it gets a lot easier to run the ball up the middle.
The success of this Utah State up-tempo attack was on full display against UNLV this season. In the first half alone the Aggies had scoring drives of 36 seconds, 57 seconds, 11 seconds, and 2:31. They kept the Rebels on their heels and pulled away in the second half for a 52-28 victory.
But going up-tempo does have its costs. As Coach Wells stated, “We’ve scaled back quite a bit on the amount of plays in an attempt to be really efficient at the ones we do run.” Since they have to be fast at everything they do, the Utah State playbook is not thick. Additionally, when you go fast there isn’t time to call audibles. Finally, the Aggies will not change personnel groups often because doing so would allow the defense an opportunity to substitute. With a limited play-calling sheet it’s imperative that the Aggies are efficient with the ball. Wells exclaimed, “If you’re not going to be possessing the ball very long you better be scoring points.” When they’re not, the Aggies can find themselves in trouble.
Against New Mexico this season the Aggie attack had a single drive that lasted over 4 plays in the first half. This resulted in seven first-half possessions for New Mexico. Coach Wells knows this type of situation can occur and always has a contingency plan in place to keep his defense fresh. Coach Wells said, “I’m committed to playing our best players on special teams.” But he also realizes you need to be smart about snap counts. Therefore, Utah State will sometimes substitute on special teams to reduce the workload of their linebackers and defensive backs. Additionally, Wells will reserve timeouts on defense to give his defenders a break. Utah State utilized a timeout on defense late in the second quarter of the New Mexico game. In those seven first-half possessions, New Mexico only scored 3 points. The Aggies were able to come out on top in that game 24-10.
But tempo isn’t just about offense and defense, it’s about practice as well. Coach Wells stated, “More is not better in terms of practice time.” Coach Wells believes that every rep has a cumulative effect on his players and he wants them to be fresh come game day. So, Coach Wells doesn’t focus on volume in practice; he focuses on quality. Additionally, Coach Wells knows it’s difficult for opponents to prepare for an up-tempo attack. Coach Wells said, “I’m not sure scout teams can really simulate the speed.” And they can’t. I’ve seen teams even try having two scout teams so that they can go rapid fire and really push the pace, but even that doesn’t come close to the clock and field speed that you’ll see on Saturday.
While the up-tempo offense never made it to the NFL, it’s here to stay in college football. The brilliance of this attack is that by simplifying the game on offense you can make it more difficult for defenses. Beyond its technical aspects, the up-tempo attack creates the type of identity you want for a football team. “It’s about being aggressive, it’s about running more plays, it’s about being efficient with the plays that we’re running,” Wells voiced.
Wells and the Aggies will look to push the gas against Hawaii this week in pursuit of a win that will make them bowl eligible. Kickoff is set for Saturday at 3 PM Eastern.
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