After going 3-8 last season, Colorado coach Gary Barnett spent the winter searching for answers, and shortly before spring practice he arrived at this conclusion: The Buffaloes had to improve their first-down efficiency. He didn't mean how many first downs his offense made but how many yards it gained on first down. Like many other coaches, Barnett had to accept that college football has converted from dial-up to broadband, that the old notion of an efficient first down being an off-tackle run that sets up second-and-six has gone the way of artificial turf.
If defenses are blitzing from the time, they come onto the field, then offenses have to respond by throwing over the blitzers. "First down used to be neutral," Barnett says. "A neutral down means base defense. Now the defense is thinking, Let's force the offense into a bad play. On second-and-long, third-and-long, the defense dictates what happens."
In the Big Ten game that put Purdue in the conference's driver's seat last season, the blitzing Boilermakers caused Northwestern quarterbacks Zak Kustok and Matt Danielson to hurry so much that they completed only five of 11 first-down passes with one interception. Although the Wildcats scored on their first two drives, Purdue roared back with the next 27 points and won 41-28.
Calculating college football teams' successor lack thereof—on first down isn't easy. The NCAA doesn't keep statistics by down. Coaching staffs use computers to measure their teams as well as their opponents by every index save barometric pressure. While coaches acknowledge that when teams break down the same video, they come up with the same stats, few coaches are willing to make the statistics public. To a man, however, they confirm that what happens on first down dictates the flow of the possession—and, hence, the flow of the game—more than ever.
The emphasis on first-down play-calling is the latest response to the aggressive defensive philosophy that has emerged over the last few years. By positioning as many as nine men in the box (that area from tackle to tackle) and putting cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage, defenses have crippled the inside running that was a staple of college football for generations.
The first counter by offenses was to employ a spread attack (SI, Oct. 11, 1999), a series of formations employing three, four or five receivers while leaving one or sometimes no back behind the quarterback. The second step was the advent of the mobile quarterback (SI, Aug. 14, 2000), who has become a prerequisite for thwarting defensive pressure. "Once the quarterback hands off the ball, you have 10 players and defenses have 11," Notre Dame offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers says. "Now on first down, offenses have to use 11 against the defense's 11. You see a lot of option football, a lot of one-back football. You have the quarterback run. You're not going to see very many two-back backfields."
Third-down plays are usually charged with electricity. Whenever an offense keeps its punter on the sideline for fourth down, the buzz in the stadium rises as both teams break huddle and meet at the line of scrimmage. On the other hand there's first down, which for decades was as bland as white bread. In 1912, when the NCAA Football Rules Committee increased the number of downs to gain 10 yards from three to four, it did so in part to reduce the number of punts on first down when a team had poor field position, and to inject offense into the game. Four downs also increased the role of the forward pass, though passing for many years remained a weapon teams rarely used on first down.
From the single wing to the Notre Dame box to the T and to the I, the goal of first down was shortsighted: Get in position to make another first down. The definition of first-down success has forever been second-and-six. In his 1971 handbook, Power T Football, Oregon State coach Dee Andros summarized the prevailing first-down philosophy clearly and concisely. "We will go with our best play and our strongest back," he wrote, "trying for the four-yard play."
In 1980, when Vince Dooley won a national championship at Georgia with freshman tailback Herschel Walker, the Bulldogs ran on 84% of their first downs. As recently as 10 years ago, says Arkansas defensive coordinator John Thompson, "on first down you played base defense, and on second down you hung on. The game was played on third down."
When Barnett became coach at Colorado in 1999, fans hailed him as the man who would bring discipline, toughness and national prominence back to the Buffaloes. After all, Barnett, who'd served as running backs coach and then offensive coordinator at Colorado from 1984 through '91, espoused the offensive philosophy—a punishing running game—of Bill McCartney, who coached the Buffaloes to the '90 national championship. In that No. 1 season, Colorado ran on first down more than 81% of the time.