This is the season when even ordinarily conservative, defense-minded coaches rediscover the forward pass. If they don't use it more themselves, it certainly will be used against them with greater frequency than in years. The reason lies not in a desire to live more recklessly on Saturday afternoons, but in the columns of statistics that pour out of the NCAA office. The digits add up to an inescapable conclusion: defenses have caught up to the wishbone.
Last year pass completion percentage rose to 47.44% nationwide, the alltime high. Passes attempted and passing yardage also shot up, while rushing attempts and rushing yardage dropped—a synchronism that had not occurred since 1966. What's more, yards per rush, the main measure of rushing efficiency and a figure that increased each season from 1967 to 1975, fell dramatically in 1976. Clearly what is developing is another cycle in the evolution of football. As the 5-2 defense annihilated the straight T and the roving linebacker choked off the wing T, new defenses are catching up with run-dominated offenses, particularly the wishbone.
Invented in 1952 by a junior high school coach in Fort Worth, the wishbone was first used in a college football game in 1968 when Texas turned it loose on Houston on national television. What the nation saw that day was a deceptive attack whereby, in some unholy manner, the quarterback could select a ballcarrier long after a play began to develop. The landmark game ended in a 20-20 tie, but Texas quickly ironed out the wrinkles and went on to win nine straight, including the Cotton Bowl. Houston polished its attack, too—something called the veer, which amounted to a wishbone with an extra pass receiver instead of a running back—and rang up 562 yards a game that year, then an NCAA record. Soon wishbones and veers were proliferating. Oklahoma adopted the wishbone in 1970, and the next year the Sooners fine-tuned it to gain 566.5 yards a game, a record that still stands. As one bedraggled Sooner opponent put it, "Trying to stop the wishbone is like trying to stop a leak in a worn-out pipe. You plug up one spot and it opens up somewhere else."
But suddenly last season the wishbone began to be less effective. Florida Quarterback Terry LeCount explains what happened from his vantage point in the driver's seat. The Gator system calls for the quarterback to make four "reads" as he shuffles along the line of scrimmage. "I'd read one, two, three and four, and they'd all be covered," LeCount says. "So I'd turn the corner, and there still would be three guys waiting for me." The Texas-Oklahoma game, an intense interstate rivalry that produced an average of 51 points a game from 1968 to 1973, ended in a 6-6 tie last season. But most indicative of all the statistics was that for the first time in a decade not one wishbone team ranked in the Top Ten in offense at the end of last season.
"Naturally a shift in balance comes along every so often." says Alabama's offensive coordinator, Mai Moore. "When you run the ball as often as we do in the wishbone, passing evolves because teams begin stacking defenses. When they stress the run, they become vulnerable to the pass. You take what they give you."
National champion Pittsburgh certainly took what it was given, despite the presence of Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett. Against Duke, Dorsett was held to 40 yards rushing, largely because the Blue Devils had stationed what seemed to be their entire College of Arts enrollment on the defensive line. But Panther Quarterback Matt Cavanaugh began lofting passes over the eight- or nine-man front, four of them for touchdowns in a 44-31 Pitt win. In the Sugar Bowl, Georgia alternated eight-and nine-man lines to collar Dorsett, limiting him to 34 yards in his first 14 carries. Again Cavanaugh took to the air, hitting two passes to set up one touchdown and connecting on a 59-yard scoring pass for a lead Georgia never overcame. Oklahoma threw just four passes in victories over Kansas State and Missouri, but facing Nebraska with a share of the Big Eight title at stake, Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer unreeled a halfback option pass and a flea-flicker. The two passes were instrumental in a 79-yard march and the game-winning touchdown. "I felt intuitively we ought to hump it up out there," Switzer said.
"When you look at offense as a totality, your first fundamental has to be a running game that is solid and powerful," says USC Coach John Robinson. "But in many of the big games passing is so often the difference."
It is a philosophy Robinson may well have acquired by witnessing recent Rose Bowls. Since 1968 the Pac-8, with its pass-oriented attack, has won eight of 10 against the often favored, run-oriented Big Ten. Last year USC upset Michigan primarily because the Trojans overplayed against the run to stop the Wolverine ground game, especially in the first half. Though his offense was going nowhere, Michigan Quarterback Rick Leach tried only four passes during those 30 minutes of play. In the end USC had held Michigan to 155 yards rushing, 207 yards below the Wolverine average, and to six points, 32 under the Wolverine average.
If you don't believe passing is making a comeback, listen to the coaches: "We're strong believers in passing. We feel it's safer than our pitchouts."—New Mexico's Bill Canty.
"The defenses eventually catch up, and that's what's happening now. You'll see an increase in passing all over the country."—Georgia's Bill Dooley.
"We have gone to four straight bowls because we are more balanced than a lot of people. Most teams are lopsided on running."—Maryland's Jerry Claiborne.
"You've got to do something to defeat those eight-man fronts they're using against the wishbone and veer."—Pitt's Jackie Sherrill.
"Last year we increased passing from nine a game to 13, almost 40%, and we're going to increase it more this year. If you haven't practiced passing under pressure, you find it difficult to go to the pass to win."—UCLA's Terry Donahue.
"When a weak team like Rice can score 34 points on a tough team like A&M [which it did by passing] that is a harbinger."—Missouri's Al Onofrio.
Other harbingers are subtly showing up. In 1974 three Southwest Conference teams averaged 100 yards passing a game. In 1975 there were four, and last year seven averaged 100 yards, including co-champions Texas Tech and Houston. Not coincidentally, in 1974 four SWC members used the wishbone. Last year there were two, and this fall there will be just one (Texas A&M).
In spring practice Texas' new coach, Freddie Akers, abandoned the Longhorn wishbone and installed a veer to bolster passing. And if you think he's just fooling around, he also shifted Olympic-sprinter Johnny (Lam) Jones from halfback to flanker. The first thing Lou Holtz did at Arkansas was to hire Don Breaux, who built the potent air games at Florida State and Florida. Holtz then broke Razorback tradition by signing a receiver as his first recruit. And if you think he's just fooling around, note that the first play called from scrimmage this spring was a pass.
To bolster its passing Pitt bagged the multiple I and will go with a pro I. Big Ten dark horse Illinois will introduce an I, too, and Texas Tech has added a drop-back package to its veer. This spring Oklahoma initiated three-a-day practices, with more time being devoted to the passing game. So did Nebraska. Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors treated the Volunteer staff to a visit to the Dallas Cowboys—to take notes on their air game. Penn State's Joe Paterno spent part of the winter at Stanford doing likewise. "I can't tell you the number of coaches that visited our spring workouts or requested game films," says Homer Rice, coach of the Rice Owls, the 1976 NCAA passing champion.
And just when evolution seems to be calling for more balanced attacks, the NCAA has come up with rule changes that also seem designed to get the ball in the air. The most obvious is the new rule permitting linemen to block downfield as long as the pass is completed at or behind the line of scrimmage. Dave Nelson, secretary of the rules committee, calls this innovation "the major change in the passing game since they changed the size of the ball in 1934." Certainly it enhances the success of screen passes (and of injuries from blindside blocks, some coaches fear). Another rule reducing the number of football scholarships will, in a less obvious manner, be almost as much a reason to beef up the passing game. Houston Coach Bill Yeoman says, "Once you can't muscle somebody, you better be able to pass."
Mississippi State's Bob Tyler has been using a wishbone for just one season, but he already sees a dropback attack in the Bulldog future. "We're at a point in football where passing is looking over the horizon," he says. "We'll see a lot of play action this fall because it takes that to get us out of the running defenses we're in. Three or four years from now we'll be seeing games where teams throw 45 or 50 times, like Florida State of old."
Don't think for a moment that traditionalists like Woody, Barry and Bo don't have an ear to the ground. Running has always been the main tenet of their philosophies, but they like to win, even if it means getting the ball into the air.
THE LEADERS OF A NEW AIR FORCE
With passing making a resurgence, out of necessity, coaches are looking for a species that came perilously close to endangered status in the last decade: the quarterback who can throw. Some of these are strictly passers, including three who are making pro scouts drool: Brigham Young's Gifford Nielsen, Washington State's Jack Thompson and Stanford's Guy Benjamin.
Nielsen is the 6'5" Gatling gun who led the Cougars to the Western Athletic Conference co-championship, mainly by passing for 3,192 yards, the fifth-highest total in NCAA history, and 29 touchdowns, the fourth-best total. This year he aims to become the only player in major-college football history to net 3,000 yards in two seasons, and he is 2,884 yards away from breaking the alltime NCAA career record of 7,549 yards, set by John Reaves of Florida in 1969-71. His accomplishments are doubly remarkable when you consider that Nielsen was an outstanding forward on BYU's basketball teams for two years before trying out for varsity football. From atop BYU stadium Nielsen can see all the meaningful places of his life—where he was born, raised, educated, married and achieved stardom. "It appears that I've covered a lot of ground in a relatively short distance," he says.
That certainly is not the case for Thompson, who was born in Tutuila, on American Samoa, and is now playing football at Pullman, Wash. "The life is super here," he says. "Everyone always smiles and laughs." Last year Thompson completed 208 passes, one more than Nielsen, for a 58.6% completion average, three points better than Nielsen's. His passing yardage of 2,762 broke Jim Plunkett's Pac-8 record, a stunning feat since Thompson was mostly on the bench until Washington State's fourth game. Although he played only 30 of a possible 40 quarters, he threw for 20 touchdowns and scored two others on bootlegs. Against California Thompson rallied the Cougars from a 23-0 deficit only to lose 23-22. Said Cal Coach Mike White, "Thompson will be the greatest passer this conference has ever seen." A junior, the "Throwin' Samoan" may very well emerge as the first 8,000-yard passer.
Stanford's Benjamin last year completed 170 passes for almost 1,982 yards despite alternating at quarterback with Mike Cordova. Coach Jack Christiansen liked them both but was worried that Benjamin was too blithe a spirit to care about football. Benjamin holds the Stanford record for passing accuracy (58%), and although, realistically, he cannot I surpass the 7,887 school-record total-yardage figure amassed by Plunkett, who was a three-year starter, he is just 430 yards away from moving into second place ahead of Mike Boryla, John Brodie and Frankie Albert. Christiansen is gone now, replaced by Bill Walsh, who says Benjamin is his man, regardless of his quirks. One of them is game-day preparation. "I meditate using principles of Taoism and Zen Buddhism," Benjamin says, "followed by a couple of hours of TV cartoons."
John Robinson of USC thinks his quarterback, Ron Hertel, ranks among the nation's top five. Last year Hertel came off the bench to help beat Notre Dame, connecting on six of seven passes, including one for the go-ahead TD. You hear the same claims elsewhere. Matt Cavanaugh, a 59% passer, is back at Pitt; Army has Leamon Hall, fourth among returning quarterbacks in both passing and total yardage; Air Force has Dave Ziebart, who completed 19 of 26 and threw for three touchdowns in a victory over bowl-bound Wyoming. Michigan State's Ed Smith, the Big Ten's leading passer, is now a senior, and Dennis Sproul is back at Arizona State after passing for 174 yards a game despite injuries. Grambling senior Doug Williams holds nearly all his school's passing records, and Utah's Pat Degnan was the nation's top quarterback before breaking his hand last year.
The dropback passers won't be the only ones throwing this season; the option quarterbacks will have quite a fling themselves.
Among them is Arizona's Marc Lunsford, the WAC record holder for average yards gained per pass (9.83). Duke's Mike Dunn ran and passed for 167 yards a game to lead the ACC in offense. New Mexico's Noel Mazzone passed and ran for a record 356 yards against Utah and converted almost 50% of Lobo third-down plays. Memphis State's Lloyd Patterson threw for 14 touchdowns and 1,563 yards, both Tiger records, and rushed for another six touchdowns.
David Walker has Texas A&M thinking Cotton Bowl after turning the Aggies around last season. Walker became the starting quarterback in A&M's sixth game, when the Aggies were 3-2 and had scored as many as 20 points only once. Throwing 67 passes and completing 40, Walker opened up the offense, and the Aggies went on to win seven straight and average 38.7 points a game. Maryland will again be quarterbacked by Mark Manges, a 58% passer who threw for touchdowns in eight of 11 games last year and rushed for 448 yards. When the season was over, the Terps had an 11-0 record and a bid to the Cotton Bowl.
Houston Coach Bill Yeoman might not trade Danny Davis for all the above. Davis came on to lift the Cougars from 2-8 in 1975 to 9-2 and a Cotton Bowl victory. For practical purposes, Davis was Yeoman's only change in personnel from the previous season. He completed 77 of 161 passes for 1,348 yards and ran the ball for another 420. "I don't know what he has," says Wilson Whitley, Houston's All-America tackle, now with the Bengals, "but he sure has a lot of it."
As does Texas Tech's Rodney Allison, who is regarded as the most dangerous option quarterback in the land. He rushed for 523 yards and completed 59% of his 139 passes for 1,458 yards, nearly half of the Red Raider total in a 10-1 season. "He is in charge of the show," Coach Steve Sloan says.
After years of running backs dominating college football, that now seems to be the case with quarterbacks throughout the nation.