U-M's Shotgun Offense is Older than the Winged Helmets Themselves

Nov. 9, 2010

By Richard Retyi

Adam Rittenberg: Good starts for both the Irish and the Wolverines on Saturday, and it should be a great one in South Bend. Let's talk offense. What do you think Knute Rockne and Fielding Yost would say about these two systems matching up?

Brian Bennett: I think both coaches would have spit in a leather helmet in disgust. What's the over/under on total number of snaps under center on Saturday? Five?

ESPN bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett aren't alone in assuming that Michigan's spread offense and, more specifically the shotgun snap from center, are products of a flashier generation of college football. The pro-style attack and three yards and a cloud of dust are synonymous with Big Ten and Michigan football.

But the facts of the matter are quite different.

"What about the Mad Magicians?" asks sophomore quarterback Tate Forcier, referring to the 1947 Michigan football team who some believe was the greatest college squad ever assembled. The 1947 squad averaged 39 points per game and beat USC 49-0 in the Rose Bowl to win the national championship. They didn't do it running out of the I-formation.

"That team did some of the same things we're running today," says Forcier.

Fielding Yost and the Short Punt Formation
In the early 1900s, head coach Fielding Yost used the short punt formation through much of his coaching career. In the short punt formation, the passer lines up a few yards behind the center -- a precursor to the shotgun snap. The quarterback taking the snap has the option to run or throw and this versatility gives skilled quarterbacks a chance to record big offensive numbers.

"The shotgun snap allows the quarterback to be an option in the run game," says Michigan quarterbacks coach Rod Smith. "With the quarterback as a potential rusher, the offense can equal the number of defenders, canceling out any numerical advantage on the defensive side of the ball."

The short punt formation helped Benny Friedman, Michigan's most prolific passer at the time, dominate opposing defenses with the help of his go-to target, three-time All-American Bennie Oosterbaan. The famous Benny to Bennie combination won the Wolverines a pair of Big Ten titles in 1925 and 1926, averaging 26 points per game over a two-year span -- an impressive of feat against stingy college defenses in the 1920s.

"The shotgun formation gives a quarterback a better view of the defense," says sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson. "You can see a lot more of the field and it's better for shorter quarterbacks because it's easier to see over the offensive and defensive line."

Friedman, standing just 5-10, was able to pick apart opposing defenses with his passes or tuck the ball and run when the opportunity presented itself. It's no wonder that Michigan's offense was so dominant in this era.

When Harry Kipke took over coaching duties in 1929, he continued to employ the short punt formation, winning four straight Big Ten titles from 1930 to 1933 and back-to-back national championships in 1932 and 1933. Standing 5-8, dual-threat QB Harry Newman led the Wolverine offense out of the short punt formation and was honored with the Douglas Fairbanks award in 1932 -- the forerunner to the Heisman trophy.

Fielding Yost era

Tom Harmon

Fritz Crisler, the Single Wing and the Mad Magicians
In 1938, Fritz Crisler became head coach and switched Michigan's offensive alignment to the single wing, which still employed a shotgun-style snap from center. In the single wing, the quarterback lines up behind the guard and the snap goes to the halfback or fullback with the QB acting as a blocker. Forest Evashevski, the most famous blocking QB of this era, plowed the way for Tom Harmon from 1938-40. In the single wing, Harmon chewed up huge numbers on the ground, finishing runner-up in Heisman voting in 1939 and winning the award in 1940 as the most dominant player in college football.

Crisler continued to employ the single wing through the 1940s, leading to a national championship in 1947 with the Mad Magicians. TIME Magazine described the Mad Magicians as "A collection of chrome-plated, hand-tooled specialists," and added that "Michigan's sleight-of-hand repertory is a baffling assortment of double reverses, buck-reverse laterals, crisscrosses, quick hits and spinners."

Led by star tailback Bob Chappius and halfback Bump Elliot, the Mad Magicians scored 394 points in 10 games and outscored their opponents by nearly 35 points per game. Many believe the 1947 team was the greatest college football team ever assembled. Chappius was a force on the ground and through the air, leading the team in passing and rushing. In the Rose Bowl, Chappius ran the single wing to perfection, completing 12-of-22 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 91 yards on 13 carries.

Bob Chappius and halfback Bump Elliot

Bennie Oosterbaan, the T-Formation and the Schembechler Era
Oosterbaan took over as head coach in 1948 and Michigan won a second national title running the same offense as before. Oosterbaan moved the Michigan offense towards the T-formation in the 1950s, which Elliott continued when he took over as head coach right up until the arrival of Bo Schembechler. It was Schembechler who employed an option-style offense throughout his career, which his successors Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr turned into Michigan's pro-style offense.

That is, until the arrival of Rich Rodriguez and the spread.

Robinson and Forcier would have found themselves quite at home in the old Yost, Kipke, Crisler, Oosterbaan and Elliot offenses and I'm sure those legendary head coaches would have been more than happy to welcome Michigan's current quarterback crop on their rosters. The spread in name might be new to Michigan, but the concepts and the shotgun snap are even older than the winged helmets themselves.

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