Work in Sports
Expect even more passing on the plains this year
By Tim Griffin, Special to CNNSI.com
Somewhere, former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer has to be falling off his couch in disbelief.
Gone are the days when the Wishbone ruled the nation with a physical running attack that left opposing teams sprawling in its wake.
Fast forward 25 years, and the metamorphosis in the Big 12 is as noticeable as changing from trench warfare to stealth bombers. The conference that once produced runners like Earl Campbell, Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders and Mike Rozier is switching from ground-based attacks to the air.
As recently as 1998, the conference boasted three of the nation's top five rushers in Texas' Ricky Williams, Missouri's Devin West and Texas Tech's Ricky Williams. The Big 12 featured the nation's top rusher in each season from 1996-98 and ranked 1-2 in its first two years. Eight runners ran for at least 1,500 yards in a season in the conference's first three seasons.
But none did last year, and only two -- Iowa State's Darren Davis and Texas' Hodges Mitchell -- topped 900 yards in 1999.
"It's definitely changed from how it was from when I came in a couple of years ago," said Tech's Williams, the only back still remaining in the conference from the 1998 stockpile. "I don't think you'll see any of those high totals anywhere this year."
The changes in the Big 12 have been especially apparent to Kansas defensive back Carl Winbush, who earned the nickname of "The Butcher" for his penchant for physical play.
"In the past, we would have to come up and play the run and everything else second," Winbush said. "But in this league over the past couple of years, that's all changing. People are passing more and it's more challenging. I like the challenge."
The trend should be more pronounced this year when quarterbacks like Oklahoma's Josh Heupel, Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury, Baylor's Greg Cicero and whoever emerges at Texas has a chance to rank among the national passing leaders.
The arrival of passing guru Mike Leach at Oklahoma last year helped steer the Sooners into the most pronounced aerial blitz in the school's storied history.
Heupel averaged 45.5 passes per game last year -- more than 10 more attempts per game than any other team in the conference. He set school and conference records for attempts (500), completions (310), completion percentage (62.0 percent), touchdowns (30) and yards (3,460). More importantly, he took the Sooners to their first bowl game in six seasons.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops hired Leach before last season because of his previous success at Kentucky. Stoops thought a similar offense would work in his first year at Oklahoma, particularly with a seasoned junior-college quarterback like Heupel to run it.
"I just felt that rather than beat our heads against the wall and come in thinking we're going to smash people by getting in the I-[formation] and ram it down people's throats ... we'd have a better opportunity to score points, move the football and be a better team in this style of offense," Stoops said.
The new attack was different from anything Oklahoma fans had ever seen. Heupel completed more passes (68) in his first two games at OU than any of the school's six national championship teams did in a complete season.
"It's a difficult offense to control because it's not option football, the power football that you usually see in the Big 12," Heupel said. "What makes this kind of offense work is when the quarterback does a good job of seeing things at the line of scrimmage. There's a weakness in every defense on every play. They're giving up something deep, giving up something short when they tell you to run the ball." Sooners linebacker Rocky Calmus knew the new offense would work as soon as he watched it on the practice field.
"We faced it every day, and we still couldn't stop them," Calmus said. "I was excited for them, even though they were beating the tar out of us."
That notoriety helped Leach earn the head coaching job at Tech, where he expects Kingsbury to have similar success running his offense.
"The biggest thing is execution," Leach said. "With this offense, the key is spread out the defense as much as possible and getting the ball to your key players. That all falls on the quarterback. I have a lot of confidence in what Kliff can do for us."
At Texas, Major Applewhite broke most of the school's passing records in his first two seasons as a starter. But with Applewhite recovering from knee surgery, rocket-armed Chris Simms figures to see plenty of playing time early this season.
Simms' abilities should perfectly mesh with offensive coordinator Greg Davis' "stretch-the-field" offensive philosophy and could make it difficult for Applewhite to regain the job when he's recovered.
The Longhorns had the nation's leading rusher in Williams in 1998, but ranked only 73rd last year. Williams rushed for 2,124 yards in 11 games his final year. The Longhorns combined for 1,756 yards in 13 games last season. Even staid Missouri, which has featured a punishing ground attack with Larry Smith, will move to a West Coast offense this season with new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. One of the reasons why Cubit was hired was because his Western Michigan offense presented the most problems for the Tigers last season.
The change to the new attack has been something new for Smith, who has always favored a physical rushing attack.
"I think he's accepted it just like we all have accepted e-mails and using computers instead of writing things down," Missouri associate head coach Ricky Hunley said. "It's the wave of the future and he realizes that."
Some coaches still weren't convinced early last year. Kansas coach Terry Allen remembers telling his defensive coaches that passing could not dominate in the conference.
"We were a horrendous pass-defense team, but one of my underlying tones to our defensive staff was, 'Let's prove that they can beat you with the pass in this league.' Well, they sure as hell proved it last year," said Allen, whose team ranked last in the league and 102nd in the nation in pass defense. "It's a trend, and it's here to stay. So your approach has to change."
It could get worse as the Jayhawks' three cross-division opponents this year will be Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas.
"We have to get better really quick, or it could get ugly," Allen said.
Whether the air game evolves into a passing fancy is still to be determined. After all, Nebraska is still the conference's preeminent power with its steady dose of smash-mouth runners.
But bet on a lot of footballs being flung in the Big 12 this season.
"It's still the Big 12, and there are an awful lot of good players here," Stoops said. "It doesn't matter what everybody else does, everyone is still going to be looking for their best chance to win. If that means throwing 50 times a game, so be it."
Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News. His CNNSI.com conference insider will appear weekly during the season.