SI Vault
 
And This Too Has Come To Pass
Craig Neff
November 08, 1982
The new strategy is victory through air power...even in the Big Ten
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 08, 1982

And This Too Has Come To Pass

The new strategy is victory through air power...even in the Big Ten

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

Echoing Eason, he adds, "Ours isn't a gambling offense. It's a ball-control offense." Indeed, on 279 pass plays—usually four-or five-yard shots—the Commodores have turned the ball over just nine times; they've lost 10 fumbles, however, on 222 running plays. Yup, three things can happen, two of them bad.

In its spring game in April, Vandy learned quickly what the fans want to see. On the first series from scrimmage, Taylor took his squad 80 yards for a touchdown with a clever mixture of sweeps and traps and off-tackle plays. Thereupon a woman in the stands stood and shouted, "Throw the ball!" Attendance is up by an average of 4,250 to 7,000 per game at Illinois, Wisconsin and Maryland, where passing has taken hold.

What many of these quarterbacks share, besides a love of throwing and startling statistics, is a home state: California, where high school teams often pass as frequently as Stanford and where, in the summer, young players can sharpen their skills in seven-on-seven, two-hand-touch "passing leagues." Among the golden arms from the Golden State are Elway, Ramsey, Eason, Bennett, Tunnicliffe, Schwab, Frank Seurer (89 of 168 in '82) of Kansas and Mike Hohensee (175 of 285) of Minnesota. "Anybody who wants to can find a great passer in California and can teach blockers how to hold legally and protect him," says Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz, concisely summarizing what many schools have done or will do, including heretofore run-oriented Oklahoma, which has lately been combing through West Coast junior college rosters, looking for both a passer and receivers for next season. Even Princeton got itself a California quarterback, senior Brent Woods, who has broken two school total offense records and completed 150 of 317 for 1,877 yards in seven games this season.

California coaches as well as quarterbacks have been a force in the Big Ten's radical transformation. The conference now ranks second only to the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (San Jose State, Long Beach State, et al.) in passing attempts; there has been a whopping 96% increase in the Big Ten since 1977. Remember that the conference's demigod used to be Woody Hayes of Ohio State, a man who for years said, "Three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad." He recently amended his antipassing axiom to include more than completions, incompletions and interceptions. "Four things can happen," he declared, having seen the Earle Bruce-coached Buckeyes turn to the pass and lose three straight games. "You might get fired."

When Darryl Rogers went to Michigan State in 1976 from pass-happy San Jose State, he brought with him a far different view. "From what I gather, Big Ten coaches don't like to pass on first down because if it's not complete, that means they have to pass on the next two downs," he said. "The way I look at it, if you complete the pass on the first down, you don't have to worry about the next two downs." Hayden Fry and Joe Salem brought similar ideas to Iowa (last year's Big Ten co-champion) and Minnesota, respectively, and Mike White and Dennis Green—two more of the California school—have installed passing offenses at Illinois and Northwestern.

White and Green both had at one time or another been assistants under Bill Walsh, for the past four years the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Among college coaches who emulate the pros there's a tendency to specifically take after Walsh. "His ball-control passing game has opened the eyes of many coaches," former Denver Bronco and Stanford Coach John Ralston says. "A Super Bowl win will do that." Walsh is popular primarily because the style he developed is nearly impossible to stop.

"You can't play a good zone coverage against that type of passing game," laments Missouri's Defensive Coordinator Carl Reese. "It's forced us into man-to-man defense. You have to have a man up where the ball is. He can't sit back and react." With the emasculation of the pass rush, defensive backs and linebackers have to blitz the quarterback more than in the past—a tactic that often backfires by leaving the secondary short-handed, as Washington learned against Stanford last Saturday. Eason talks of mixing up long and short passes and thereby "stretching zone defenses vertically and horizontally, stretching them until they have holes."

The passing game also stretches games. "The concessions people love us. They sold a lot of soft drinks," said Vanderbilt's McIntyre after a three-hour 13-minute, 19-10 defeat of Mississippi in which the two teams threw 82 passes. Thanks to Elway's arm, Stanford, too, has chalked up some big sales. Even though the Cardinal is only 5-3 this fall, it already has appeared three times on national television and once on regional TV. Stanford will net about $1 million after sharing its TV money with the other Pac-10 members.

Though passing doesn't necessarily guarantee victories, it does instill hope. "It's our great equalizer, our chance to stay in the games against teams with better talent," says Illinois' White. More schools than ever realize that. Adds Purdue Coach Leon Burtnett, "To immediately build up a program, go get a good quarterback and specialists."

Of course, many of the traditional powers can afford to disdain such quick fixes. Alabama still runs its multiple option. Nebraska, with running backs Mike Rozier and Roger Craig need pass no more than usual. Georgia is winning even while throwing only 15 passes per game, down from 19 last season. Until Saturday, Notre Dame had yet to throw a TD pass this year. Even Indiana Coach Lee Corso, whose Quarterback Laufenberg is averaging 21.1 completions a game, cautions, "If you throw 50 passes in a game, I'll guarantee you one thing. You'll get beat." Agreeing with him is Washington State's Walden, who says, "Passing teams don't win national championships. Teams that can pass win national championships."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4