It is not as though college football has been struggling along without the hip-feint and the stiff-arm, or the dipsy-doodle and the pad-thump, or all of the things that have helped to make the game so colorful for readers, writers, broadcasters, publicity men, pro scouts and manufacturers of the hyphen. The running star, that classic hero of football, has always been around, leaping through the air and gritting his teeth in 8-by-10 glossies, even when a proficient passer was busy winning the Heisman Trophy and the Homecoming Queen. It is simply that today, right now, the runners are sidestepping and line-wrecking as never before in all kinds of multiplying sizes and speeds. A runner goes 100 yards now—even 200 or more—like he goes to the pencil sharpener. These bounding, barging demons range from the strong, durable Ed Marinaro of Cornell (see cover) to the swift, rubbery Greg Pruitt of Oklahoma, from Oregon's fluid Bobby Moore to Alabama's Johnny Musso, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam. God bless the running backs, not to mention their stats.
The trend toward more running began in 1968, while no one was paying much attention. That year saw the birth of the Wishbone at Texas, which along with the two-year-old Veer T at Houston offered coaches a couple of ground-eating attacks, both utilizing a deceptive fast-striking weapon called the triple option. That was also the season when everybody decided that artificial turf was a necessity. And finally it was the season when O.J. Simpson and Steve Owens and Mercury Morris proved that a runner, a good one, could be overworked and still excel.
The three new factors have created the following: ground attacks on occasional faster footing, with top runners getting their hands on the ball more frequently. Result: see how they run.
Last week the National Collegiate Sports Services reported that 1971 would produce the biggest one-season swing to rushing since 1953, which was the year that the rules makers took the game back to the "ironman" days—the year they threw out platoons, or free substitution, for a decade. Moreover, the NCAA statistical bureau has noted, rushers are churning out 57.9% of all total-offense yardage, compared to 53.5% last year. That is a big jump, one that results from more and more teams going to some form of the triple option, whether Wishbone, Veer or Power I.
When coaches took the time to dwell on the results of 1968, there was a subway rush to the triple option and a mass decision to give their best guy the ball more often. Not only had the option teams heaped up some staggering yardage, the endurance runners had over-whelmed the throwers. This was the season when four players, led by the record-smothering Simpson, gained more than 1,500 yards, and 16 men in all gained more than a thousand—a record by several stiff-arms.
There was a slight dropoff in 1969 when only 12 men joined the Thousand-Yard Club, largely because some singular talents like O.J. were gone. But then came last year and another record torrent of 19 rushers over a thousand yards; option-style football and the speedy turf became even more entrenched.
All of which brings the game up to the current season and a condition which strongly indicates that either there are more nifty runners around than the pro scouts and college coaches can comprehend, or that the option attack ought to be outlawed.
The season slipped past the halfway point last Saturday, and it appears that, barring injuries, as many as 25 runners have a very real chance to gain over a thousand yards, and one man, the flying Greg Pruitt, has a chance to become the first player to get a phenomenal 2,000 yards in one season. On 19 occasions a runner has gained more than 200 yards in a single game, and Marinaro, the big senior, and Pruitt, the sleek junior, have done it three times each. Other seniors and juniors have done it: even sophomores. And also some strangers, such as Kerry Marbury of West Virginia who sped for 291 last Saturday. By comparison, Doak Walker never gained 200 yards in a college game, nor did Jim Brown. As Pruitt told Steve Owens, who won the Heisman at Oklahoma in 1969, "Hey, man, with that old four-yard average you had, you'd have to play defense now."
Marinaro and Pruitt, both of whom are already over a thousand yards now, are about as different as two runners can be. But in their battle for the rushing title they are showing there are all kinds of ways to move the first-down chain. Marinaro is carrying the ball about 35 times a game; Pruitt about 15. Last Saturday against Yale, Marinaro slammed off tackle 43 times and got 230 yards, sliding and diving for most of it himself. Meanwhile, Pruitt, with more help, blazed for 294 yards on only 19 carries as Oklahoma's Wishbone put some more basketball totals (75-28) on the boards. So while Pruitt is proving that he can get there quicker, Marinaro is proving that he can take the licks.
Marinaro, in fact, has been proving it for three seasons. On his first or second carry this week against Columbia, he should break Steve Owens' NCAA career record of 3,867 yards and then go on to become the first major-college player to gain 4,000 yards in a career.