The Times West Virginian

October 3, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: High-tempo offenses rule Big 12 football

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Evolution or revolution?

That was the question running through the back of an empty mind on Saturday afternoon as West Virginia University put 70 points on the board and Baylor 63 in a game that was not far removed from watching kids playing catch with a football in the backyard.

Someone likened it to 7-on-7 football, but in truth no one could convince me there were as many as seven players on the defensive side of the football at any given moment. If there were seven on defense, there had to be 11 on offense.

Or a Canadian 12.

Where, though, did this game we were watching come from? Was it really part of an evolutionary process that began with the flying wedge and went through the single wing, the winged-T, the triple option, the wishbone, the freeze option?

Certainly it didn’t look like it was, but then again they say man came from sea creatures, yet there appears to be no link to lobster when you compare, save except the hands that Stedman Bailey seems to possess that latch onto the football as if they were pincers.

Or is this simply a revolution that grew out of a protest movement against land-based football, a realization that it is easier for one man with the ball to beat one defender in space than to hand it off to one running back and have 11 men trying to tackle him while being blocked by only nine?

Certainly, it is a different brand of football.

Paul Rhoads doesn’t like it. He is the Iowa State coach whose roots are in defense and who once ran that aspect of the game for Pitt, becoming the No. 1 enemy of WVU football when he figured out a way to stop Rich Rodriguez’s offense when all WVU needed to do was beat a 24-point underdog Panther team to go into the national championship game.

“I like regular football,” Rhoads said during this week’s Big 12 coaches’ conference call.

Of course, this was the worst week for him to defend that point, coming off a game against Texas Tech where his “regular football” offense scored six points and gained fewer than 200 total yards.

Charlie Weis, the head coach at Kansas, also is something of a mythological creature when it comes to defense, having been the man who ran New England’s defense through its early Super Bowl runs.

He looks at these offenses, especially the one Geno Smith is running at West Virginia, and admits amazement.

“It’s a tad bit scary,” he said. “The volume of points scored, you look at the scoreboard and say, ‘My gosh!’ You look at the numbers. I know it’s across the country, but especially in this conference where so many points are being scored.”

It is difficult to admit that it may go back to the first forward pass, said to be thrown out of desperation by the legendary Walter Camp as he was being tackled in 1876, or even to the first legal pass that was thrown in 1906 by St. Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson against Carroll College.

In truth, as recently as 1985, WVU’s leading passer was Mike Timko, who passed for 567 yards that season, fewer yards than the 656 Geno Smith threw for against Baylor.

The wide-open, precision passing game grew out of the minds of Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, each a tutor of WVU coach Dana Holgorsen, and now it is proliferating throughout football, coming along at almost the perfect time.

The forward pass was legalized in 1906 in part because President Teddy Roosevelt demanded reform in the game to make it safer. That is little different than the rules’ revisions that are going on in this era to make the game safer, almost all of them legislated against the defense.

Bob Stoops of Oklahoma, who has a pretty fair passer of his own in quarterback Landry Jones, has gone public with the difficulties it all presents to defensive coaches.

“It’s a nightmare,” Stoops said to Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman.

He noted one situation:

“An opponent threw a deep ball 50 yards downfield. Incomplete. While OU’s two defensive backs hurried back to the line of scrimmage to set up for the next play, the intended receiver just stepped off the field, and his substitute, back upfield, stepped on. And the offense ran a play before the OU DBs were in place,” Tramel wrote.

Stoops felt that was an unfair advantage for the offense ... and is probably right about it.

But he also understands that the offenses themselves have evolved to the point of being unstoppable.

“What you have to appreciate, while everyone will have their debates, the precision of some of the quarterbacks and receivers, some of the things they’re doing, it’s pretty strong. Just gets harder and harder to defend.”

So what do you do? Do you throw up your hands and just concentrate on outscoring the other team, as it sometimes appeared had happened in Saturday’s Baylor-WVU game?

No, said Weis.

“I don’t think there’s a defensive guy who would say that,” Weis said. “They are always finding ways to stop the offense or, at least, slow them down.”

But the truth is it has reached the point that stopping these offenses when they have talented players is almost impossible.

“When they have those players, they are going to score points. You are not going to hold them to low numbers,” Weis admitted.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.