At a time when it seems to a great many of us that the whole world is either on strike, on fire, on dope, or on a sneezing jag because of all of the hair dangling in its face, it only stands to reason that the religion of college football should reflect some kind of fierce neurosis. And it does. With only half of the 1968 season gone, the computer can verify what the startled fan, the bewildered coach and the out-of-breath tackier have all been thinking. Briefly this: nobody can stop anybody. Or as Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles puts it, "There isn't a defensive coach in America who can sleep at night without taking pills."
Like none before it, the current season is a display of what can happen when several trends come together at the same time. Specialized athletes, permissive rules which favor offense and inventive coaches have all combined in 1968 to bring absolute ruin to both defensive thought and ability.
The result has been an explosive season, one in which, in the first five weeks, the number of plays per game (148.7), the total offensive yardage per game (629), the total points per game (39.3), the number of pass completions per game (23.2), the number of pass attempts per game (50) and the total yards passing per game (299) all proceeded at a record-breaking pace. And meantime, we slump back and listen to results that make us wonder how a sport that produced the Seven Blocks of Granite can suddenly come up with the Seven Dabs of Mayonnaise instead.
To just leap about the country for some clever examples, this has been a year in which Cincinnati scored 33 points on Houston—and lost by 38. In which Baylor got 36 on Indiana—and lost by four. In which Montana piled up 45 on Idaho—and lost by 11. In which Toledo pounded out 31 against Ohio—and lost by nine. In which fast, deceptive Arkansas scored more points (29) against stubborn Texas than Frank Broyles ever has—and lost by 10. And this was all before last Saturday when the most unruly spectacles occurred. Such as Notre Dame growling for 455 yards and 26 first downs and losing (21-17) to Michigan State. Such as Oklahoma racing for 508 yards and 27 points—and losing to Colorado by 14. Such as Army giving up 480 yards (the highest total in its history) and 25 points to Duke, and winning by an outlandish 32. And such as speedy Houston losing five fumbles—five, mind you—in Jackson, Miss., and still grinding up the Rebels 29-7 with 573 yards of total offense. Not to mention atrocities like Cal's 43 points against Syracuse (see page 34) or careful Missouri's 56 against Kansas State.
November 4, 1968
How this has happened is easier to explain than what will happen next. Practically the whole of the '60s has been given over to experimentation with offense. USC's John McKay came up with the shifting T, or his form of the I, which was the first system that could attack the rush-conscious defense. It spread the field and confused the roving linebacker. Up to then, the way to win was to power sweep everybody, try to outmuscle them, play defense and wait for a break. McKay's formation led to other variations—and ultimately to what is now referred to as "pro style" college football, but which is actually more diversified and complex than pro football. Basically, receivers are split wide—often five receivers go out on a single play—backs can run and quarterbacks can throw and run. All of this has spread defenses too thin.
At the same time there came a gradual erosion of the two-way football rules. There was a wild-card substitution, then two wild cards, then offensive and defensive units and, finally, unlimited substitution, which enabled coaches to concentrate on developing specialist-oriented offenses, with unusual emphasis on quarterbacks and receivers. Obviously, a remarkable number of these excel at their specialties. SMU's skinny sophomore quarterback, Chuck Hixson, for example, has already completed more passes in a single season—a whopping 164 with four games to play—than all but three Southwest Conference throwers ever. And this is a league which has produced a few Sam Baughs, Bobby Laynes and Don Merediths in its day.
With the new intricate systems and the rules permitting specialization, the offense got one more boost with the rule that stops the clock after a first down, a change that has added an average of 4.2 plays a game to a team's attack. In addition to this small increase, however, there is a surprising tendency to run many more plays per game than in the past. In fact, in terms of" action provided, college offenses now make the pros look dowdy. In the first half of the season the top college teams got off about 40% more offensive plays than the leading pro teams. Notre Dame averaged 93 plays a game; Yale, 89; Ohio State, 87; Georgia, 85. USC, with its ground attack, and Tennessee, with its consciousness about field position, still averaged 78 each. This compared with Los Angeles at 65 plays a game; Dallas, 63; Baltimore, 60 and Green Bay, 57.
"We are now getting plays off every 12 or 13 seconds," says Ohio State's Woody Hayes. "We are moving so fast I frequently can't get a play in from the sidelines. We'll hit 100 plays a game soon." This, coming from one of football's bastions of the conservative, makes it plain that something big has happened.
Quite naturally, all of this is driving the game's coaching giants goofy. Bear Bryant is sitting down there in Tuscaloosa with one of the best defensive teams he has ever had, allowing opponents only 10 points a game, but the Tide has been beaten twice and scared witless almost every week because it just can't score enough. And coaches with teams that can score try to score plenty, because they pace the sidelines knowing a two-touchdown lead is far from a safe one anymore. (Halftime last Saturday: Ohio State, 24; Illinois, 0. In the fourth quarter: Ohio State, 24; Illinois, 24.)
"What's happened is obvious," says Bryant, the master of defense. "First of all, due to the pro influence, there are more good pitchers and catchers coming out of high school. They all want one of those Joe Namath contracts. Then, of course, most colleges use their best athletes on offense, as backs and receivers. That's not necessarily true in the pros. They've got some of their best athletes on defense, especially corner-back. When the defense is forced to spread out, it must go to man-to-man coverage. But if the offensive boy—the pass receiver—is a better athlete than the defensive boy, he'll beat him. So you have to go to double coverage, and that weakens you against the run."
Particularly the running of a quarterback. "The hammer that has broken things down is the option play," says Frank Broyles of Arkansas. "If we just spread people out and let the quarterback drop back and throw like the pros, you could play a consistent defense. But now you've got teams with two split receivers, with runners, and with quarterbacks who can run the option as well as throw. This simply generates more offense than any defense can handle.
"If the pros had the collegiate option play, they'd go up and down the field all day," Broyles says. "Against their standard four-man fronts, a Roman Gabriel ought to be able to roll out without any sort of fake and get a first down whenever he wanted to expose himself to that sort of thing."
Kansas' Pepper Rodgers concurs: "In the pro game, because the quarterback almost never runs, you have what might be described as 10 men on offense against 11 men on defense. The colleges have 11 against 11, and the best ones are playing offense." Rodgers himself has the man who best typifies the new trend. Quarterback Bob Douglass, a strong passer and excellent runner. "I think of him, at 6'3" and 212 pounds," says Rodgers, "compared to me at quarterback for Georgia Tech in 1953. I was 5'9" and weighed 175. And Douglass would have outrun me by 20 yards in a 100-yard dash." So dangerous are these running quarterbacks that three of them are among the top 12 ground-gainers in the Big Eight Conference.
What has happened to those fabled All-America defensive linemen with the evolution of "option" football as opposed to the "power" football of the 1950s is best explained by Texas' Darrell Royal. "The big tackle who used to stand his ground and keep anyone from running over him has been isolated into an option position. If he tackles the running back on a dive but the quarterback has faked the hand-off, that's just as effective as blocking the tackle."
The tackle is in trouble because of the biggest vogue in college football—"Homer's Triple," as some call it, or the "Houston Veer," as others refer to it. It is a quarterback option play first devised by Cincinnati Coach Homer Rice, then expanded upon by Houston Coach Bill Yeoman. If you run it Homer's way, the tackle gets optioned instead of blocked. You make that hulking soul worry about three things: a give to the runner, a keep by the quarterback or a pitchout. If you run it Houston's way, both the tackle and the end are optioned instead of blocked. Perhaps it should be called Somebody's Quadruple, because the quarterback can also pass as he goes veering down the line.
What it all comes down to is that the defense has been terribly disarmed. The deep backs have to stay back or get bombed. The cornerbacks have to watch the run and the pass. The ends have to beware of the pass first. The linebackers have to drop off and double cover, or move more quickly than most of them can with a play flowing away from them.
One thing that would solve the dilemma immediately would be a rules change. Eliminate free substitution and it would be back to power football quicker than you could say Bear-Darrell-Frank. But most college coaches like two platoons, even if their athletic directors are beginning to worry about budgets. The only other solution will take a little longer. This would be for coaches to start putting their best athletes on defense. Woody Hayes, for example, is in the enviable position of being able to use John Tatum, a 6-foot, 202-pound 9.7 man at cornerback even though Hayes is sure Tatum could be his starting tailback. It was Tatum who shadowed Purdue's Leroy Keyes so well that Leroy fell back a few strides in the Heisman derby, and Ohio State beat the Boilermakers 13-0, a musty, old-fashioned football score.
"When the colleges start developing fast, talented cornerbacks, you'll begin to see a difference," says Florida State's Bill Peterson, himself one of the prime movers toward offense. "We're already seeing a lot of different defensive 'looks.' They're starting to make it difficult to call the right play. It'll tighten up, and then we'll all be trying to go to something else."
As Darrell Royal likes to say about trends and how the game goes in cycles: "There ain't a horse can't be rode or a man can't be throwed."
Meanwhile, the only thing being throwed is defense.
The play that hurts the most
This is the triple option that is destroying defenses. It attacks two key men, the defensive end (1) and tackle (2). Here the quarterback slides to his right. His first option, depending on what the tackle does, is to give the ball to the running back or keep it himself. If he keeps it, he moves on as the back blocks the tackle and then, depending on what the end does, he answers the big question. He either pitches to the trailing halfback and blocks the end or fakes the pitch and runs himself—or he may suddenly stop and pass to an open receiver.