Unfold the NCAA's weekly 70-page statistical printout and impressive passing numbers tumble into your lap like spilled popcorn, and not just next to a name like Elway, but alongside guys called Whit and Boomer and Babe. You'll see right there in cold squared-off digits what Bill Walsh, new blocking rules, California and colored gloves—among other things—have done to college football: Passing isn't just up, it's way up.
Fact most likely to cause a double take: Abounding in the Big Ten—where plays used to be three yards long, one fullback wide and a cloud of dust high—are eight of the nation's Top 50 major-college passers.
Fact that indicates the increase in passing doesn't figure to be just a single-season statistical aberration: Oklahoma is looking for a quarterback who can fling.
For the first time ever, major-college teams are gaining more yards by passing than by rushing. As the chart on the facing page shows, even though passing attempts have risen steadily since 1976, this year's increase has been especially sharp. Attempts are up by 9.1% per game, completions by 13.4% and passing yardage by 9.9%. Passing also has led to more points (an average of 43.2 per game against 41.0 just last season), longer games (145.2 offensive plays per game, compared to 141.2 in 1979), higher attendance (up by 677 fans per game over '81) and the answer to at least one eternal domestic problem: Says Washington State Coach Jim Walden, "Every woman in the world knows where the ball is when it's in the air." Adds Vanderbilt Coach George MacIntyre, throwing out an old line with a new twist, "When you run, three things can happen, and two of them—a loss and a fumble—are bad."
The increase in passing has occurred in almost every conference (see chart at right) and has been even more pronounced among independents, such as Penn State, West Virginia and Boston College. When the Nittany Lions beat the Mountaineers 24-0 two weeks ago, West Virginia Quarterback Jeff Hostetler had an "off day" and still completed 19 of 37 for 250 yards. Last Saturday, Penn State defeated BC 52-17 despite the heroics of Eagle sophomore Doug Flutie, a scrambler whose throwing had led his team to a 5-1-1 mark going into the game. Flutie, just 5'10" and 175 pounds, completed 26 of 44 passes against the Nittany Lions, good for 520 yards, the tenth-highest single-game total in NCAA history. "You wonder how he's able to see over those pass rushers," says BC Coach Jack Bicknell. "He doesn't. Neither does a 6'1" guy. You have to look between the rushers, not over them."
Penn State's 6'4" junior, Todd Blackledge, the centerpiece of Coach Joe Paterno's new passing offense, threw for three touchdowns against the Eagles, bringing his single-season school record total to 20 after only eight games. The Nittany Lions, who last year gained 39% of their yardage by passing, have achieved 54% of it in the air in 1982. "I'm not completely comfortable with it," says Paterno, "but we have to take advantage of the great skill people we have."
The greatest of the skill people belongs to Stanford. He's the aforementioned John Elway, a B—student majoring in economics, a sometime outfielder in the Yankee organization and perhaps the best college passer ever.
"Elway is unbelievable when he's got time and he's healthy. He can work miracles," says senior Quarterback Jamie McAlister of New Mexico State, who himself completed 26 of 38 for 385 yards and four touchdowns in a 28-26 loss to Wichita State last month. "As far as arms go, Elway's got everybody beat. But if any quarterback has a line that can win the battle up front, he only has to be an adequate passer to get things done."
This year's stats are proof of that assertion, because never before have quarterbacks had so much time to throw. Since 1980, when a rule change reduced the penalty for offensive holding from 15 yards to 10 and allowed offensive linemen to extend their arms and use their hands while blocking, the battle up front has been as futile for pass rushers as the charge was for the Light Brigade. Alabama Coach Bear Bryant disparagingly calls the 1980 regulation "the offensive-line holding rule," and Wyoming Coach Al Kincaid says, "There are guys getting away with murder. I don't know how you can have a pass rush in college football anymore." Adding to the blockers' edge is the fact that officials are reluctant to call holding because the use-of-hands rule is so vague and because they're so often pulled downfield—and out of position to watch for holding—by passing plays. Some crafty coaches have exacerbated the officials' difficulties in detecting holding by outfitting blockers with gloves that match the color of opponents' jerseys.
Secondaries have been hindered, too, by a long-standing interpretation, written into the rule book this year, that prohibits a defensive player from bumping a receiver once the receiver has drawn even with him. "Used to be, you could beat the hell out of a receiver, just keep on bumping and shoving him," says former Florida State Assistant Coach Bob Harbison. Now defenders are permitted just one "bump" before they become involved in a high-speed chase.
New rules are but one reason for the passing explosion. "Give credit to the defensive coaches," says Offensive Coordinator Frank Sadler of New Mexico. "Defensive philosophies like eight-or nine-man fronts have shut down running games."
"Basically, it starts in high school," says Temple Coach Wayne Hardin. "I think most of the high schools are throwing the ball more than ever in the past." Adds Tulane Coach Vince Gibson, "Another reason is television. Receivers can study instant replays and perfect moves that many ballplayers didn't think about 10 and 15 years ago. This starts before high school." Other observers cite the increasing number of Pee Wee leagues and instructional camps for young players. "We're getting finished products as far as pass catchers are concerned," says Gibson. "The same goes for quarterbacks."
Certainly it helps that the current group of signal-callers—from freshmen through seniors—is also extraordinarily talented. Tony Razzano, director of college scouting for the San Francisco 49ers, calls it "one of the best in the 20 years I've been in the business. It'll be a long time before there's another crop like this one." It seems to be the match of such notable groups as those of 1955, when Earl Morrall and Bart Starr were seniors and Sonny Jurgensen, Len Dawson, John Brodie and Milt Plum were juniors, and of 1970, when Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, Dan Pastorini, Joe Theismann, Lynn Dickey and Ken Anderson were in college. Elway, Blackledge and Pitt senior Dan Marino may have received the most attention this season, but there is a raft of others who have shown exceptional ability. Wayne Peace of Florida, a junior, has completed a phenomenal 74.1% of his 170 passes and has led the Gators to wins over Miami and USC. Senior Tom Ramsey of UCLA, the national leader in passing efficiency, a statistic that takes into account completion percentage, total passing yards, touchdowns and interceptions, has thrown 17 TD passes in eight games and given the Bruins their strongest aerial attack ever, stronger even than in the days of Bob Waterfield, Billy Kilmer or Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban.
At Brigham Young, junior Steve Young has proved himself a worthy successor to the illustrious Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon, by completing 160 of 266, while Maryland junior Boomer Esiason, a lefty, has brought the Terps out of their conservative shell. Last week he engineered a 31-24 upset of ACC rival North Carolina. And, oh, his name? In the months before Norman Julius Esiason was born, he kicked so much in his mother's womb that his dad kept asking, "How did Boomer do today?" And if you want to know how Arizona beat Notre Dame 16-13, and tied UCLA 24-24, look no further than junior Tom Tunnicliffe, the country's seventh most efficient passer (57.9%), whose best performance came in a 55-7 rout of Pacific. In that game Tunnicliffe completed 21 of 27 for 427 yards and six touchdowns and set eight school single-game records. Duke's Ben Bennett, also only a junior, is already on the verge of breaking the ACC career records for passing yardage (6,116, he has 5,535) and touchdown passes (37, Bennett has 34), and junior Kelly Lowrey of Florida State has made his mark as an outstanding option thrower, completing 69 of his 129 passes and leading the 6-1 Seminoles to an unexpected ranking in the Top 20. Southern Mississippi's Reggie Collier, a 6'4", 205-pound senior who in 1981 became the first Division I-A quarterback ever to both pass and rush for 1,000 yards in a season, will be as attractive as anyone to NFL scouts.
As for Indiana senior Babe Laufenberg—his real name is Brandon (Brandon?), but as the youngest of six kids he lucked out on his nickname—who briefly attended Stanford, Missouri and Pierce J.C. near Los Angeles before becoming a Hoosier, well, ol' Babe set school records by completing 34 of 56 passes, for 335 yards, two weeks ago in a 49-25 loss to Ohio State. Incredibly, he wasn't the Big Ten's most prolific thrower that day. In a 49-14 defeat by Michigan, Sandy Schwab of Northwestern, a freshman, put the ball up an NCAA-record 71 times, completing 45 for 436 yards. "It's touch football," grumbled Wolverine Coach Bo Schembechler, who nonetheless has been calling more pass plays himself lately, however reluctantly.
Among this season's other noteworthy passers:
Tony Eason, Illinois. Champaign (sic) Tony, a 6'4" senior, transferred from California's American River College two years ago, having averaged fewer than 10 passes per game in his high school and junior college careers. "I came in on the ground floor," he says. Yet last season he set nine Big Ten passing records, and this fall he's averaged 41.7 attempts, 26 completions and 308.4 yards per game. His 479-yard passing performance against Wisconsin two weeks ago ranks as the second-best single-game showing in Division I-A so far this season.
"We throw high-percentage passes, four or five yards, instead of running," says Eason. "We balance those with the longer passes. If you have a 90% completion probability, that's as good as an off-tackle trap." And that explains exactly the difference between 1982 and other big passing years: Teams are throwing more short, efficient passes. They're passing to set up the run. They're passing instead of the run. They're passing to set up more passing.
Whit Taylor, Vanderbilt. Like Eason, Taylor, a 5'11" senior, never passed much until last year, when Vanderbilt dumped its veer offense in favor of a multiple-formation "smorgasbord" passing set. Taylor ate heartily off the smorgasbord, breaking 17 school passing records and leading the SEC in passing offense (3,036 yards). This fall he passed for 287 yards in a 31-29 upset of Florida and brought Vandy to within four points of knocking off Alabama.
"We have so many shifts and formations that sometimes it's almost comical to watch the defense react," says Taylor. "It gets pretty hectic for them. They talk to each other." That's another 1982 development. In emulation of the pros, college teams are adding all sorts of new twists to their passing attacks—not just shifts and motion but extra wide receivers and trick plays. "We always feel we have the advantage over the defense," says Taylor.
Echoing Eason, he adds, "Ours isn't a gambling offense. It's a ball-control offense." Indeed, on 279 pass plays—usually four-or five-yard shots—the Commodores have turned the ball over just nine times; they've lost 10 fumbles, however, on 222 running plays. Yup, three things can happen, two of them bad.
In its spring game in April, Vandy learned quickly what the fans want to see. On the first series from scrimmage, Taylor took his squad 80 yards for a touchdown with a clever mixture of sweeps and traps and off-tackle plays. Thereupon a woman in the stands stood and shouted, "Throw the ball!" Attendance is up by an average of 4,250 to 7,000 per game at Illinois, Wisconsin and Maryland, where passing has taken hold.
What many of these quarterbacks share, besides a love of throwing and startling statistics, is a home state: California, where high school teams often pass as frequently as Stanford and where, in the summer, young players can sharpen their skills in seven-on-seven, two-hand-touch "passing leagues." Among the golden arms from the Golden State are Elway, Ramsey, Eason, Bennett, Tunnicliffe, Schwab, Frank Seurer (89 of 168 in '82) of Kansas and Mike Hohensee (175 of 285) of Minnesota. "Anybody who wants to can find a great passer in California and can teach blockers how to hold legally and protect him," says Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz, concisely summarizing what many schools have done or will do, including heretofore run-oriented Oklahoma, which has lately been combing through West Coast junior college rosters, looking for both a passer and receivers for next season. Even Princeton got itself a California quarterback, senior Brent Woods, who has broken two school total offense records and completed 150 of 317 for 1,877 yards in seven games this season.
California coaches as well as quarterbacks have been a force in the Big Ten's radical transformation. The conference now ranks second only to the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (San Jose State, Long Beach State, et al.) in passing attempts; there has been a whopping 96% increase in the Big Ten since 1977. Remember that the conference's demigod used to be Woody Hayes of Ohio State, a man who for years said, "Three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad." He recently amended his antipassing axiom to include more than completions, incompletions and interceptions. "Four things can happen," he declared, having seen the Earle Bruce-coached Buckeyes turn to the pass and lose three straight games. "You might get fired."
When Darryl Rogers went to Michigan State in 1976 from pass-happy San Jose State, he brought with him a far different view. "From what I gather, Big Ten coaches don't like to pass on first down because if it's not complete, that means they have to pass on the next two downs," he said. "The way I look at it, if you complete the pass on the first down, you don't have to worry about the next two downs." Hayden Fry and Joe Salem brought similar ideas to Iowa (last year's Big Ten co-champion) and Minnesota, respectively, and Mike White and Dennis Green—two more of the California school—have installed passing offenses at Illinois and Northwestern.
White and Green both had at one time or another been assistants under Bill Walsh, for the past four years the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Among college coaches who emulate the pros there's a tendency to specifically take after Walsh. "His ball-control passing game has opened the eyes of many coaches," former Denver Bronco and Stanford Coach John Ralston says. "A Super Bowl win will do that." Walsh is popular primarily because the style he developed is nearly impossible to stop.
"You can't play a good zone coverage against that type of passing game," laments Missouri's Defensive Coordinator Carl Reese. "It's forced us into man-to-man defense. You have to have a man up where the ball is. He can't sit back and react." With the emasculation of the pass rush, defensive backs and linebackers have to blitz the quarterback more than in the past—a tactic that often backfires by leaving the secondary short-handed, as Washington learned against Stanford last Saturday. Eason talks of mixing up long and short passes and thereby "stretching zone defenses vertically and horizontally, stretching them until they have holes."
The passing game also stretches games. "The concessions people love us. They sold a lot of soft drinks," said Vanderbilt's McIntyre after a three-hour 13-minute, 19-10 defeat of Mississippi in which the two teams threw 82 passes. Thanks to Elway's arm, Stanford, too, has chalked up some big sales. Even though the Cardinal is only 5-3 this fall, it already has appeared three times on national television and once on regional TV. Stanford will net about $1 million after sharing its TV money with the other Pac-10 members.
Though passing doesn't necessarily guarantee victories, it does instill hope. "It's our great equalizer, our chance to stay in the games against teams with better talent," says Illinois' White. More schools than ever realize that. Adds Purdue Coach Leon Burtnett, "To immediately build up a program, go get a good quarterback and specialists."
Of course, many of the traditional powers can afford to disdain such quick fixes. Alabama still runs its multiple option. Nebraska, with running backs Mike Rozier and Roger Craig need pass no more than usual. Georgia is winning even while throwing only 15 passes per game, down from 19 last season. Until Saturday, Notre Dame had yet to throw a TD pass this year. Even Indiana Coach Lee Corso, whose Quarterback Laufenberg is averaging 21.1 completions a game, cautions, "If you throw 50 passes in a game, I'll guarantee you one thing. You'll get beat." Agreeing with him is Washington State's Walden, who says, "Passing teams don't win national championships. Teams that can pass win national championships."
CONFERENCE PASSING AVERAGES
NATIONAL PASSING AVERAGES