Is what has happened to offensive football in college just a passing fancy?
Or has the game somehow been reinvented, redefined and reinvigorated?
Certainly, no one can deny that it has changed. Points are now cheap, 50-point games as plentiful as eggs in a henhouse, and every game has more passes than the most popular High Street singles bar on a Friday night.
Once upon a time it was Mike Leach at Texas Tech, maybe a maverick coach or two somewhere out in the Southwest or West who was flinging the ball around 50 or more times a game, but they were considered rebels.
Today they have become gurus with hundreds of followers. Just last week David Piland of Houston completed 53 of 77 passes for 580 yards and four TDs, and Division III Eureka (Ill.) quarterback Sam Durley passed for 736 yards in a single game, breaking the NCAA record set by Houston’s David Klinger back in those maverick days of 1990 at 716 yards.
Even Rich Rodriguez, recently moved to Arizona and now back to his Glenville State passing days, threw 41 times in upsetting Oklahoma State, which threw the ball 55 times itself.
And what was it that Darrell Royal of Texas said about the forward pass?
“There’s three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.”
Well, Piland threw those 77 passes without an interception, a signal that maybe times really have changed.
So what does an old football coach think about the new football?
And better yet, College Football Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen, what would your former boss at Michigan, Bo Schembechler, have thought of what’s transpiring today?
Nehlen laughs when the question is put to him that way.
“You know, Bo grew up in a different era,” he said. “He believed No. 1 in defense. He put all his best players, with the exception of his quarterback and his tailback, on defense. Now the best athletes go to quarterback, running back and wide receivers.
“So your secondary kids are different than they were a few years back because the guys with the great hands and ability to move and catch are playing offense instead of defense.”
Nehlen believes Schembechler would have eventually accepted it.
“This new concept of throwing the ball 40 and 50 times a game would be foreign to Bo, but I think Bo would be smart enough to see there are some advantages in it. ... It’s exciting; it’s different; the fans like to see 44-28,” Nehlen said.
Then he thought of Schembechler, who coached his way into the College Football Hall of Fame at Miami of Ohio and Michigan, trying to adapt to coaching in this era.
“I’ll say this though. If Bo Schembechler’s teams ever would have given up 500 yards he would not have gotten up Sunday morning. He’d have died Saturday night,” Nehlen added with a chuckle.
The question is whether or not this game of football as it now is coming to exist is the future of the game, or will it eventually go the way of the split-T, the wishbone and all the other offensive innovations that became the rage of the game?
“I’m anxious to see because almost everything in football goes in a cycle. It’s what’s new today, so to speak, was new 50 years ago. I think really good defensive football teams will catch up with it,” Nehlen said.
And the reason is that Nehlen, like Schembechler, is a defensive coach at heart, and he knows that the good defenses will make it possible to defeat the wide-open, spread offensive game.
“Missouri does a great job with that offense. They’ve been doing a great job with it for a long time, but last night they got 20 points because Georgia is a great defensive team,” Nehlen said. “Defenses will catch up with it.”
Nehlen even said it would “be fun to try and defense that thing,” adding:
“The thing that puzzles me when I watch it is, if they are going to count people — when there are so many in the box they run and when there are so many in the box they pass — then you have to make it a situation where the quarterback doesn’t know how many are going to be in the box.
“You have to move people or make those down linemen stand up, or put two guys in one gap, then move one over there. See, the biggest advantage a spread team has is the clock. They line up and the coach looks from the box, sees the defense, then sends it to the guy on sideline and he signals it to the QB.
“If the guy up in the press box doesn’t know how many defenders are in the box, then he has to wait a little longer. That makes the guy on the sideline get nervous, and he’s wondering what’s going on up there in the box. And the quarterback, he’s really nervous because there’s no play coming in and the clock is ticking down to 12, 11 ... all of a sudden the big advantage for the offense becomes an advantage for the defense.”
Nehlen knows more about the spread than you may believe, for he actually put it to use on his own offense.
We did it a lot with (Marc) Bulger. My last three or four years coaching at West Virginia, we used the spread on third down,” he said. “Bulger held every record until the pass-happy guys came. We threw the ball with great effectiveness and, yes, I counted the box and stuff ... but I was old-school and it was hard for me to do that every down.
“It’s hard to sell a team something when down deep in your heart you’re not real sure it’s what you want to do anyhow.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.
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