By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
If one would allow an observation from the recently concluded Big 12 media day interviews, it was that there was one side of football that was almost completely overlooked, a side of the game that really most coaches consider the most important.
It was the late, great Duffy Daugherty of Michigan State who once observed:
“Football is not a contact sport. Football is a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.”
That, though, was in the 1950s and yesterday is a long time ago.
Football in the Big 12 has come to be perceived as something closer to dancing than the game Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke used to play. It is a game of catch built within precision offenses that spread you out and prefer to run around you rather than over you.
This is due in part to the fact that evolution made football players bigger and stronger and faster, making it far wiser to avoid contact, and because the human mind evolved to the point that schemes were developed to free ball carriers in space rather than having to create that space through physical play, the game changed.
And nowhere did it change more than in the Big 12, which is where West Virginia now resides.
In other leagues and in other years the talk of creating physical, punishing teams was always front and center, but it was strangely not a topic of conversation at all among the Big 12 coaches ... except for one old-school coach who understands that football is and always will be physical.
That is Texas’ Mack Brown, a man who this year is going to have to rely on an old-fashioned running game and an old-fashioned defense that hits hard and takes no prisoners if it is to bounce back from a down year.
Brown believes this softness developed because he had, a few years back, a special quarterback in Colt McCoy, one who would lead them to the brink of a national title only to be injured, and once that happened Texas wasn’t the Texas everyone had known over the years.
McCoy had been injured once against Kansas State, costing the Longhorns a chance to play in the conference championship game, and then again in the national championship game on the fifth play of the game.
“You go back and look at our BCS games and we haven’t run the ball as well as we needed to in those games,” Brown said. “I thought Colt was so good and so accurate that we became a softer offensive team from a running standpoint.
“We were throwing the ball on third and 4 and I wanted to bring the toughness back, because also in those BCS games we didn’t stop the run very well (against Alabama, Ohio State and USC).”
It is difficult to imagine the coach of a team that gave the world Earl Campbell could talk about turning “soft,” yet that was what he saw happening.
And, as Brown sees it, toughness goes hand-in-hand with running the football.
Most of these spread teams, West Virginia included, avoid a power running game. They run a spread, hoping to open a gap through which a fleet little back can squirt.
To WVU’s credit, it does have a power game with Shawne Alston in at running back and is willing to use it, although the soul of the offense is from the spread and what you can do by quickly getting the ball into the hands of a runner in space.
Brown is in a far different situation than Dana Holgorsen. He doesn’t have a quarterback of Geno Smith’s talents, being unsure even now which of his two will be the starter, freshman David Ash going into camp with the job his to lose.
So he will rely on talented running backs and a strong offensive line, along with the league’s toughest and best defense.
“I want us to get so we are a more physical football team from top to bottom,” he admitted.
Being more physical equates to toughness.
“I think toughness on offense is the ability to move the ball either by throwing it or running it, and therefore with confidence. We did not play especially well in the red zone last year. You better be tough on short yardage and goal line and tough in the red zone,” he said.
“You can’t just throw it all the time and be successful. The knock against the ‘throwing teams’ for years has been that the field shrinks as you get closer to that goal line. It’s harder to score without being able to run. So that’s one element.
“The other thing is our defense being able to stop the other team’s rushing game and making that team one-dimensional, because it’s hard to win if you’re one-dimensional.
“And we always felt like even with Mike Leach’s teams, if we took away the screen game and the draw game, we had a chance to win the game.
“If you allowed him to run the ball and throw the screens and you had to plant your feet to try to stop that element of the game, he was going to beat you behind and beat you deep.”
Holgorsen, of course, is a Mike Leach disciple.
Toughness shows up in the turnover department, too.
“The other thing is we go back to the biggest difference in football games is turnover ratio, and you need the big hits,” Brown said. “You need to stop the run on first down so you can put pressure on the quarterback, put him in a very difficult position, and strip some balls or force some interceptions, and if you allow people to stay along with the chains and have normal down and distance, it’s really, really hard to force turnovers.”
Can it work in this day and age and this conference, substituting toughness for guile, playing a retro brand of football?
It won’t be long before we all find out.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.