AUBURN HILLS, Mich.— When Joe Tiller came to Purdue in 1997, he was told his high-octane offense would never work in the Big Ten.
Not only would the spread attack be frowned upon in a conference that still believed in Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and “three yards and a cloud of dust,” but a pass-based system would be grounded by the wind and cold of a Midwest autumn.
Tiller didn’t pay any attention. Nor did his opponents in the Motor City Bowl. Today, Purdue will play its 10th bowl game in 11 years, facing the back-to-back Mid-American Conference champion Central Michigan Chippewas, who also use the spread offense.
“When I got to Purdue, they told me that there was no way the spread would work here because of the weather,” Tiller said. “That never made much sense to me, because I had just been having great success with it in Wyoming. Maybe they didn’t know what November is like in Wyoming.”
While Tiller was one of the coaches to bring the spread offense — a system using four or five receivers on many plays, and a quarterback in the shotgun formation on most snaps — to a wider audience, it has now become the latest trendy scheme. Tiller, though, doesn’t consider it some kind of unstoppable attack.
“It’s one of those cyclical things. Right now, the spread is the hot offense,” he said. “In a few years, the pendulum might change again, and everyone will be playing the wishbone again.”
First-year Central Michigan coach Butch Jones is another spread believer, and he inherited a program that already ran Brian Kelly’s version of the system. He made some changes, adding things he had learned in his two years as an assistant at West Virginia under new Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez.
Rodriguez’s system, unlike many flavors of the spread, makes heavy use of the quarterback as a runner, and Jones had the perfect player in Dan LeFevour.
LeFevour led the Chippewas to a MAC championship and a Motor City Bowl title as a freshman, but took a big step forward as a sophomore, joining Vince Young as the only quarterbacks to ever throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season.
LeFevour will be lining up today against another quarterback with gaudy numbers, Curtis Painter. The Purdue senior threw for 3,300 yards and 26 touchdowns this season, but in Tiller’s version of the spread, he’s not the same type of runner as LeFevour.
When Purdue played Central Michigan in September, a game the Boilermakers won 45-22, the teams combined for 1,048 yards of offense, including 724 in the air. Painter and LeFevour combined to complete 64 of 95 passes, with five touchdowns and one interception.
“We know from firsthand experience that this game is going to feature two dynamic offenses,” Jones said. “It might come down to whichever defense can make a play.”
Purdue won the first game after leading 38-0 early in the third quarter, but Painter doesn’t expect a repeat.
“That’s an entirely different team to the one we played at the beginning of the season,” he said. “They’ve improved a lot, enough to win their conference championship, and they learned a lot from having played us once already.
“This isn’t going to be easy.”