John E. Hoover: College offenses are having a ball
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Saturday, October 06, 2012
10/06/12 at 4:11 AM
Go to John E. Hoover's blog.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Bill Blankenship, himself an old quarterback and something of an offensive sage, might look across the field at Edwards Stadium on Saturday and just shake his head in amazement.
Marshall, Tulsa's opponent, leads all of college football this season with 462 offensive plays. The Thundering Herd ranks third nationally in passing offense and sixth in total offense.
The Herd's quarterback, Rakeem Cato, is coming off games of 432, 413 and 377 passing yards.
Marshall nearly went toe-to-toe with rival West Virginia in the season opener - the same West Virginia that emerged victorious from last week's 70-63 fireworks display with Baylor.
Like it or not, this is where college football is today.
"It's fascinating to me that there seems to be such a gap between the offenses and the defenses right now," Blankenship said.
Blankenship and other offensive-minded coaches don't complain much. But for a different perspective, find a head coach who came up from the defensive side of the ball.
"It's a nightmare," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
"Is this what we want football to be?" asked Alabama's Nick Saban.
The reasons are myriad, from increased emphasis on passing and receiving skills in high school to up-tempo offenses that either catch defenses in personnel mismatches or just tire them out.
"I think teams are trying more big plays," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. "In the old days, first down, you'd run up the middle. Maybe second down you'd throw something. Third down, you'd have to pass. Of course, we're past those days."
Just a bit.
West Virginia and Baylor combined for 133 points and 1,507 yards. The teams converted 23-of-31 third-down plays (50 percent is considered excellent). Six receivers went over 100 yards - including three over 200 and two over 300.
Quarterbacks Geno Smith (656) of WVU and Nick Florence (581) of Baylor combined for 1,237 passing yards - somehow still 16 shy of the NCAA record. The Bears have been over 500 yards total offense for 10 games in a row.
There were 19 touchdowns in the game, and 16 of those came on scoring drives of three minutes or less. They also combined for 77 first downs (traditionally, 20 by one team is considered strong; 30 is outrageously good).
Everyone knows Big 12 defenses aren't any good. But since when do defensive fortresses from the Southeastern Conference, like Georgia and Tennessee did last week, throw together a 51-44 shootout? Georgia also has scored 45, 41, 56 and 48 this season.
It helps that the Bulldogs have the league's best quarterback in Aaron Murray. Quarterback play is everything, and it starts way before college.
"I think 7-on-7s in high school and summer leagues is something that's really, really advanced the passing game," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "The quality of quarterback, the quality of receiver - not just talent-wise, but the knowledge of defenses, the knowledge of (route) progressions has really advanced the passing game.
"I think you're getting more advanced kids. ... People are more educated. The kids that we get have a lot higher football IQ in the passing game than they've ever had before."
Combine more advanced quarterbacks and receivers with a terminal velocity pace of play and the result is - well, 70-63.
"First of all, everybody's playing at a much faster pace, so everyone's getting more snaps in a game. I think that's No. 1. Hardly anyone huddles anymore," said Florida coach Will Muschamp, a former defensive coordinator at Texas who acknowledged a vast difference between offenses in the Big 12 and SEC.
"People are playing at a much faster tempo, they're getting more snaps, which creates fatigue for the defense, which now creates poor angles to the ball, which affects how you tackle, it affects your eye control, which creates bigger plays for the offenses, so you're seeing more explosive plays."
Football can run in cycles, but the current cycle may be beyond the point of no return. The rules changes of the late 1970s and early '80s, which allowed offensive linemen to extend their arms on pass blocking and restricted defensive contact on receivers to five yards from the line of scrimmage, have simply never been reeled in.
"The offenses have evolved to such a degree, it's gonna take another evolution of the defense to get caught up," Blankenship said.
Maybe it's time for some changes. Some rules, like enforcing holding penalties when pass blockers' hands are outside a players' jersey numbers, would have little effect. Others, such as leniency on defensive backs who make contact with receivers downfield, are unrealistic.
Maybe one solution is to allow defenses to substitute whenever they want. Currently, if the offense doesn't sub, the defense isn't allowed to either. According to Stoops and Muschamp and Saban - all from defensive backgrounds - that's a big part of why defenses struggle.
"We had a game a year ago (against Baylor) where they throw the ball deep into the end zone downfield," Stoops said. "I've got two defensive backs chasing the guy. It's incomplete and my guy has to travel back. The receiver walks off the field and the other receiver is on the line already and ready to go and they let them snap the ball. My guys are still running back."
Said Saban, "The way people are going no-huddle right now, at some point in time we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety. ... That's when guys get a much bigger chance of getting hurt, when they're not ready to play. That's something that should be looked at."
Spurrier won a Heisman Trophy quarterbacking Florida. Although he now has one of the best defenses in the land at South Carolina, he became one of the contemporary innovators of offensive football when he coached the Gators.
And yet, it's Spurrier who speaks the most basic truth about why offenses have left defenses in the dust.
"Blocking and tackling are the two most important fundamentals of football, as we all know," Spurrier said, "and we probably spend less time on blocking and tackling than we do probably drawing up Xs and Os trying to outscheme everybody."
Original Print Headline: College offenses are having a ball
And they're off...
There are many reasons for college football's record-setting offensive stampede:
- Great athletes are gravitating toward playing offense instead of defense.
- Emphasis on offseason passing efficiency and explosiveness through 7-on-7 passing camps and competitions.
- The spread offense run at a fast pace helps level any disparity in talent.
- High school and college teams can win more frequently, which allows coaches to keep their jobs.
- High-scoring offenses sell tickets and attract TV ratings, which puts money in schools' coffers.
- The proliferation of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses produces more plays per game.
- With the no-huddle, coaches improve efficiency and productivity by calling plays from the sideline.
- From the sideline, coaches can instantly dial up running plays against defenses aligned to stop the pass and vice versa.
- More total plays means more passes, and more passes means more big plays.
- College defenses can't substitute if the offense doesn't, so defenders are wearing down and losing their fundamentals.
Head Coach Bill Blankenship reacts after a touchdown at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa on Sept. 1, 2012 during the first half of the TU v Iowa State game. TOM GILBERT/Tulsa World