Passing the torch
Air attack now dominates college landscape
By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com
MIAMI -- Ah, the joys of being a late-night couch potato in today’s TV world.
Thanks to DirecTV and 759 cable channels, there are so many better alternatives these days to "Blind Date," infomercials and "Mama's Family" reruns. No more so than for those sports nuts who surely by now have found their way up the dial to that station -- owned by a certain competing network -- which specializes in reruns we can all appreciate: old games.
The home runs may still look like home runs, and the jump shots keep falling the same way as today. But when it comes to the college football classics, much of what appears on the screen now looks wildly out of place, as Oklahoma players Trent Smith and Seth Littrell found out the other day. And no, we're not referring just to J.C. Watts' afro.
Smith and Littrell viewed Oklahoma’s 1981 Orange Bowl victory over Florida State from their Miami hotel room. And sure, "Boomer Sooner" sounded the same and Bobby Bowden looked only slightly younger. But if the Sooners are to replicate their winning ways in the 2001 edition, it will most assuredly bear little resemblance to that game.
"They’d just run it down peoples’ throats," fullback Littrell, a second-generation Sooner, said of OU’s famed wishbone attack. "No one could stop it."
That is, no opponent could stop it. As for history, that’s another story.
Rushing yardage accounts for only 30.6 percent of the total offenses of the two teams playing for the national championship Wednesday at Pro Player Stadium.
And at Oklahoma, where power football reigned supreme during six national championships spanning four decades, the Sooners now run one of the most futuristic, spread offenses of any program in the country.
"They had all that success with the wishbone," said FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, a college coach for 34 years, "and now you go out there, most of the time, they have only got one back in the backfield, and the quarterback is not even under the center. I guess that would make some of those old-time Sooners out there roll over in their grave."
The offense in which quarterback Josh Heupel has broken every school passing record was installed last season by then offensive coordinator Mike Leach, now head coach at Texas Tech. And while Leach’s baby has found moderate success at Kentucky, Tech and during his one season at OU, Wednesday’s game will be its biggest stage. If the Sooners pass their way to victory, the few coaches around the country yet to pick up on some version of the now-fashionable spread offense may just have to do so.
"Things change," said the tight end Smith. "I’m sure it’s like that in the business world, you want to be the first with new technology. To be successful in today’s college football, you’ve got to be able to throw the ball, and we throw the ball well."
Of course, the Sooners’ opponent on Wednesday has been making a living through the air since long before Leach or head coach Bob Stoops arrived in Norman. Bowden’s 25 seasons in Tallahassee have seen only seven 1,000-yard rushing seasons by a player, none since current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Warrick Dunn left in 1996.
Meanwhile, Heisman Trophy quarterback Chris Weinke has taken the pass to higher and higher levels each of his three seasons, culminating this year with 266 completions, 431 attempts and a whopping 4,167 yards through the air.
"That whole thing about how you’ve got to establish the run before you can win-that is so old days, that is gone," said Bowden. "You gotta throw the ball.
"Now, to make your passing game better it sure does help to be able to run," he said. "But boy, we’ve played Spurrier’s guys some times where one team may have 37 yards rushing, the other has 31."
Certainly the run is by no means dead in college football. Nebraska is still doing quite a bit of what Litrell called "running the ball down peoples’ throats," as Northwestern found out the hard way in last week’s Alamo Bowl. And just this year, TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson became only the eighth 2,000-yard rusher in the sport’s history.
But the run is also no longer considered the essential ingredient to a championship offense. In fact, of the eight Bowl Championship Series participants this season, only two, Notre Dame and Washington, could be considered true run-oriented teams.
Which begs the question, would it even be possible for a team today to make it as far as Oklahoma or Florida State by running something resembling the once-pervasive wishbone?
"I think it would be difficult," said OU lineman Frank Romero. "More offenses everywhere are going to spread offenses. And defenses are so fast, it’d be hard to be a running team at all."
That’s why Wednesday night’s game should be exciting to watch in terms of big plays and scoring, but perhaps unfathomable to those brought up on old-school football. Both teams will line up as many as four or five receivers, send tailbacks wide, run more than just third-down plays out of the shotgun and basically tear to shreds everything Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes would have stood for.
"We don’t just feature just one receiver or even two," said OU quarterbacks coach Chuck Long. "We’ll have upwards of 14 different players catching the football in a game. I think we have over seven right now with over 20 catches or some crazy stat like that."
That’s correct, coach. In fact, make that seven with over 25. Similarly, FSU touts seven different receivers with 17 catches or more, and with the top one, Snoop Minnis, academically ineligible, Weinke is expected to spread the ball around even more.
All of which causes endless headaches for the men who have to prepare for such far-flung attacks, like FSU’s Andrews. Says the coordinator, who faced a polar opposite style from Nebraska when the Seminoles claimed their first national title in this game just seven years ago: "I guess it just bares out the fact that you can win a lot of different ways."