In 1992 Barnett became the coach at Northwestern. Three years later, when Barnett led the Wildcats to an improbable Big Ten championship, tailback Darnell Autry carried the offense, rushing for 1,785 yards. Even with an experienced, accurate passer in Steve Schnur, Northwestern ran on first down 81% of the time. The Wildcats threw only 51 passes on first down all season, and about a quarter of those were passing situations: Nine came with time winding down at the end of the first half or the game, and another four were thrown after penalties, when Northwestern needed more than 10 yards for a first down. "Until the last two years, you could take a great tailback and dominate the game," Barnett says. "You can't do that anymore. The game has come down to your quarterback. Your blitz offense becomes your regular offense."
Last season Colorado ran on first down 62.2% of the time, which was in part Barnett's concession to the attacking defenses and also a reaction to often being behind in the score. The Buffaloes averaged 3.5 yards per first-down rush. Although that appears to indicate that Colorado nearly averaged second-and-six, the statistic is misleading. The Buffaloes rushed for two yards or less on 114 of 209 attempts, or 54.5% of the time. That left a lot of second-and-longs. Whenever an opposing defense gets second-and-long, it can lock in the way a fastball hitter does on a 3-and-1 count.
Months later Barnett couldn't conceal the amazement in his voice at how defenses had attacked Colorado. Until recently blitzes weren't used when the opponent was pinned deep in its own territory. Defenses were content to let field position work for them. No longer. The Buffaloes saw blitzes no matter where they had the ball. "It used to be between your 20 and the opponent's 40, you'd see 10 to 15 percent pressure," Barnett says. "Now you get 50 percent pressure. It's a distinct change."
East Carolina has already made the offensive adjustments that Colorado is trying to incorporate, a telling point given that Pirates coach Steve Logan worked with Barnett on McCartney's offensive staff at Colorado in 1985 and '86. Logan says more aggressive play-calling on first down revived his offense. "We used to be a true West Coast offense: five-step drops, quick passes, make the clock run, pile up first downs, six to eight plays and score," he says. "Then we started seeing a lot of zone blitzes, which provide so much disruption to that West Coast line of thinking." The Pirates' offensive production fell from 28.7 points and 438.2 yards per game in '96 to 19-5 points and 307.0 yards in '97. More important, their win-loss record dropped from 8-3 to 5-6.
"With the number of blitzes we were seeing, it was hard to go 80 yards without making a mistake," says East Carolina offensive coordinator Doug Martin. "If you do make a mistake, you're looking at second-and-18, and the drive is over. We realized that we had to make quick scores. You have to make the big play. First down is really the time to take a shot."
In 1998 the Pirates began using option runs in their offense to pull the defenders out of the box. They also let 6'3", 235-pound David Garrard play quarterback. A 5,000-yard passer for Southern High in Durham, N.C., Garrard signed with Logan after North Carolina and North Carolina State said they were interested in him at tight end or linebacker. With Garrard, who can throw the ball nearly the length of the field, at the controls over the past two seasons, the Pirates have averaged 27.0 points per game and gone 17-7. Last year, with Garrard's having two years' experience under his belt, East Carolina abandoned caution.
Logan defines an "explosion play" as a run of at least 10 yards or a pass of at least 15. Of East Carolina's 89 explosion plays last season, 66 of them occurred on first down. Of the 53 explosion passes, 38 of them came on first-and-10. "When it's first down," Logan says, "we throw the ball as far as we can." In the galleryfurniture.com Bowl, Texas Tech unveiled a defensive game plan full of zone blitzes against East Carolina. Garrard picked the Red Raiders apart, running up a 34-7 lead at halftime and coasting to a 40-27 victory.
Even those coaches who don't possess a gambler's soul have begun to roll the dice. Entering his 10th season as coach at Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer maintains that his first offensive priority is a power running game. Nonetheless, on first downs, he says, "we're trying to be about 50-50 run and pass. Rather than only trying to get it to second-and-six, which is ideal, we're taking more shots."
First-down balance used to mean running to the weak side as much as the strong. Now it means passing on the same number of plays as running. In 2000 the Vols achieved the new 50-50 balance, even though Fulmer didn't have an experienced quarterback. When freshman Casey Clausen, who missed the first two games of the season because of shoulder tendinitis, made his first start, against Alabama on Oct. 21, Fulmer didn't hesitate. On the first play of the game Clausen threw a 44-yard completion to wideout Dont� Stallworth. In the third quarter, when Tennessee scored 10 points to put away the 20-10 victory, Clausen completed all six of his first-down passes for a total of 103 yards.
The decision by coaches to reach for the big play more often on first down has made the game more exciting. The question is, How long it will remain that way? Fulmer says the next step in the evolution of first-down play-calling may be backward. "People respond to what the other guy is doing," he says. "Defenses will look at playing zone on first down to not give up the big play."