Louisiana Tech running back Ryan Moats has been so good this season that he has single-handedly grounded one of the nation's most wide-open aerial attacks. Since 1996 no team in Division IA has passed for more yards (32,073) than the Bulldogs, whose typical run-pass ratio over that span was about 40-60. This fall, however, they have thrown just 203 times for 1,534 yards, while rushing 316 times for 1,461. Most of that groundwork has been done by Moats, a 5'9", 205-pound junior from Dallas, who has 1,213 yards and 13 touchdowns in eight games. Though he rushed for just 99 yards in Tech's 44-27 loss to UTEP last Saturday, Moats is averaging 151.6 rushing yards per game, fifth-best in the country. "It's rare [for a back] to have this type of success in this type of offense," he says. "But today you can't pass without the run and you can't run without the pass. There are no more Nebraskas."
Although few teams are using a run-oriented offense--even Nebraska, which scrapped the option in favor of a pro-set under first-year coach Bill Callahan, is opening things up--this season is the year of the running back.
What in the name of Steve Spurrier is going on here? Nothing more complicated, it would seem, than a confluence of extremely good runners and defenses stretched thin by strong-armed quarterbacks and athletic wideouts. "Defenses have become a lot more pass conscious," says Miami running backs coach Don Soldinger. "With people spread out all over the field, it has opened up things for the run a little bit." Moats is one of six backs averaging more than 145 rushing yards per game, the most players at that level since 1999, when Wisconsin's Ron Dayne was the last running back to win the Heisman trophy.
Coaches are wasting little time taking advantage of their talented ballcarriers. Two of the nation's top backs, North Texas's Jamario Thomas, the nation's leading rusher (166.2 rushing yards per game), and Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson (sixth, 146.1) are true freshmen, and Peterson may become the first freshman to win the Heisman. Three of the other top backs-- Oklahoma State junior Vernand Morency (164.7), Texas senior Cedric Benson (165.1) and Cal senior J.J. Arrington (153.0)--are, like Moats, putting up big numbers in traditionally pass-oriented offenses.
The success of this year's crop of running backs, however, does not seem to indicate a return to the run-dominated offenses of the 1970s and '80s. With most defenses still scheming to stop the run first, many offenses have adjusted and are running the ball less. Indeed, teams are averaging just 39.4 carries per game this fall, which is on pace for the lowest average since the NCAA began keeping that statistic in 1937. Teams are also rushing for 157.3 yards per game, the fewest since 2000.
"There have always been good running backs, but it's hard to show your talent with eight men in the box," says USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, the founding father of pass-happy offenses while at BYU from 1973 to '99. "You can't be one-dimensional on offense anymore. If you want to compete, the quickest way is by throwing the ball."
Another problem for running backs, says Chow, is the size and athleticism of today's defensive players. "The game is a lot more violent," he says. "It's really hard to depend on one guy for 25 to 30 carries a game."
It's no wonder then that USC sophomore Reggie Bush, regarded as the nation's best all-around player because of his ability to play wide receiver and return kicks, averages only 11 carries. He splits time in the backfield with LenDale White, and the Trojans' offense is centered on junior quarterback Matt Leinart. Those are all smart moves by USC, but they may cost Bush the Heisman.
All of which makes what Moats, who grew up idolizing former Heisman winner and NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, and his counterparts are doing even more impressive.