At a time when it seems to a great many of us that the whole world is either on strike, on fire, on dope, or on a sneezing jag because of all of the hair dangling in its face, it only stands to reason that the religion of college football should reflect some kind of fierce neurosis. And it does. With only half of the 1968 season gone, the computer can verify what the startled fan, the bewildered coach and the out-of-breath tackier have all been thinking. Briefly this: nobody can stop anybody. Or as Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles puts it, "There isn't a defensive coach in America who can sleep at night without taking pills."
Like none before it, the current season is a display of what can happen when several trends come together at the same time. Specialized athletes, permissive rules which favor offense and inventive coaches have all combined in 1968 to bring absolute ruin to both defensive thought and ability.
The result has been an explosive season, one in which, in the first five weeks, the number of plays per game (148.7), the total offensive yardage per game (629), the total points per game (39.3), the number of pass completions per game (23.2), the number of pass attempts per game (50) and the total yards passing per game (299) all proceeded at a record-breaking pace. And meantime, we slump back and listen to results that make us wonder how a sport that produced the Seven Blocks of Granite can suddenly come up with the Seven Dabs of Mayonnaise instead.
To just leap about the country for some clever examples, this has been a year in which Cincinnati scored 33 points on Houston—and lost by 38. In which Baylor got 36 on Indiana—and lost by four. In which Montana piled up 45 on Idaho—and lost by 11. In which Toledo pounded out 31 against Ohio—and lost by nine. In which fast, deceptive Arkansas scored more points (29) against stubborn Texas than Frank Broyles ever has—and lost by 10. And this was all before last Saturday when the most unruly spectacles occurred. Such as Notre Dame growling for 455 yards and 26 first downs and losing (21-17) to Michigan State. Such as Oklahoma racing for 508 yards and 27 points—and losing to Colorado by 14. Such as Army giving up 480 yards (the highest total in its history) and 25 points to Duke, and winning by an outlandish 32. And such as speedy Houston losing five fumbles—five, mind you—in Jackson, Miss., and still grinding up the Rebels 29-7 with 573 yards of total offense. Not to mention atrocities like Cal's 43 points against Syracuse (see page 34) or careful Missouri's 56 against Kansas State.
How this has happened is easier to explain than what will happen next. Practically the whole of the '60s has been given over to experimentation with offense. USC's John McKay came up with the shifting T, or his form of the I, which was the first system that could attack the rush-conscious defense. It spread the field and confused the roving linebacker. Up to then, the way to win was to power sweep everybody, try to outmuscle them, play defense and wait for a break. McKay's formation led to other variations—and ultimately to what is now referred to as "pro style" college football, but which is actually more diversified and complex than pro football. Basically, receivers are split wide—often five receivers go out on a single play—backs can run and quarterbacks can throw and run. All of this has spread defenses too thin.
At the same time there came a gradual erosion of the two-way football rules. There was a wild-card substitution, then two wild cards, then offensive and defensive units and, finally, unlimited substitution, which enabled coaches to concentrate on developing specialist-oriented offenses, with unusual emphasis on quarterbacks and receivers. Obviously, a remarkable number of these excel at their specialties. SMU's skinny sophomore quarterback, Chuck Hixson, for example, has already completed more passes in a single season—a whopping 164 with four games to play—than all but three Southwest Conference throwers ever. And this is a league which has produced a few Sam Baughs, Bobby Laynes and Don Merediths in its day.
With the new intricate systems and the rules permitting specialization, the offense got one more boost with the rule that stops the clock after a first down, a change that has added an average of 4.2 plays a game to a team's attack. In addition to this small increase, however, there is a surprising tendency to run many more plays per game than in the past. In fact, in terms of" action provided, college offenses now make the pros look dowdy. In the first half of the season the top college teams got off about 40% more offensive plays than the leading pro teams. Notre Dame averaged 93 plays a game; Yale, 89; Ohio State, 87; Georgia, 85. USC, with its ground attack, and Tennessee, with its consciousness about field position, still averaged 78 each. This compared with Los Angeles at 65 plays a game; Dallas, 63; Baltimore, 60 and Green Bay, 57.
"We are now getting plays off every 12 or 13 seconds," says Ohio State's Woody Hayes. "We are moving so fast I frequently can't get a play in from the sidelines. We'll hit 100 plays a game soon." This, coming from one of football's bastions of the conservative, makes it plain that something big has happened.
Quite naturally, all of this is driving the game's coaching giants goofy. Bear Bryant is sitting down there in Tuscaloosa with one of the best defensive teams he has ever had, allowing opponents only 10 points a game, but the Tide has been beaten twice and scared witless almost every week because it just can't score enough. And coaches with teams that can score try to score plenty, because they pace the sidelines knowing a two-touchdown lead is far from a safe one anymore. (Halftime last Saturday: Ohio State, 24; Illinois, 0. In the fourth quarter: Ohio State, 24; Illinois, 24.)
"What's happened is obvious," says Bryant, the master of defense. "First of all, due to the pro influence, there are more good pitchers and catchers coming out of high school. They all want one of those Joe Namath contracts. Then, of course, most colleges use their best athletes on offense, as backs and receivers. That's not necessarily true in the pros. They've got some of their best athletes on defense, especially corner-back. When the defense is forced to spread out, it must go to man-to-man coverage. But if the offensive boy—the pass receiver—is a better athlete than the defensive boy, he'll beat him. So you have to go to double coverage, and that weakens you against the run."