- Blaine LacherChristian Stone | April 11, 1994
- MAKE WAY FOR THE SULTAN OF SWIPESRon Fimrite | August 22, 1977
- Voice of EaglesRichard Deitsch | December 03, 2001
Unfold the NCAA's weekly 70-page statistical printout and impressive passing numbers tumble into your lap like spilled popcorn, and not just next to a name like Elway, but alongside guys called Whit and Boomer and Babe. You'll see right there in cold squared-off digits what Bill Walsh, new blocking rules, California and colored gloves—among other things—have done to college football: Passing isn't just up, it's way up.
Fact most likely to cause a double take: Abounding in the Big Ten—where plays used to be three yards long, one fullback wide and a cloud of dust high—are eight of the nation's Top 50 major-college passers.
Fact that indicates the increase in passing doesn't figure to be just a single-season statistical aberration: Oklahoma is looking for a quarterback who can fling.
For the first time ever, major-college teams are gaining more yards by passing than by rushing. As the chart on the facing page shows, even though passing attempts have risen steadily since 1976, this year's increase has been especially sharp. Attempts are up by 9.1% per game, completions by 13.4% and passing yardage by 9.9%. Passing also has led to more points (an average of 43.2 per game against 41.0 just last season), longer games (145.2 offensive plays per game, compared to 141.2 in 1979), higher attendance (up by 677 fans per game over '81) and the answer to at least one eternal domestic problem: Says Washington State Coach Jim Walden, "Every woman in the world knows where the ball is when it's in the air." Adds Vanderbilt Coach George MacIntyre, throwing out an old line with a new twist, "When you run, three things can happen, and two of them—a loss and a fumble—are bad."
The increase in passing has occurred in almost every conference (see chart at right) and has been even more pronounced among independents, such as Penn State, West Virginia and Boston College. When the Nittany Lions beat the Mountaineers 24-0 two weeks ago, West Virginia Quarterback Jeff Hostetler had an "off day" and still completed 19 of 37 for 250 yards. Last Saturday, Penn State defeated BC 52-17 despite the heroics of Eagle sophomore Doug Flutie, a scrambler whose throwing had led his team to a 5-1-1 mark going into the game. Flutie, just 5'10" and 175 pounds, completed 26 of 44 passes against the Nittany Lions, good for 520 yards, the tenth-highest single-game total in NCAA history. "You wonder how he's able to see over those pass rushers," says BC Coach Jack Bicknell. "He doesn't. Neither does a 6'1" guy. You have to look between the rushers, not over them."
Penn State's 6'4" junior, Todd Blackledge, the centerpiece of Coach Joe Paterno's new passing offense, threw for three touchdowns against the Eagles, bringing his single-season school record total to 20 after only eight games. The Nittany Lions, who last year gained 39% of their yardage by passing, have achieved 54% of it in the air in 1982. "I'm not completely comfortable with it," says Paterno, "but we have to take advantage of the great skill people we have."
The greatest of the skill people belongs to Stanford. He's the aforementioned John Elway, a B—student majoring in economics, a sometime outfielder in the Yankee organization and perhaps the best college passer ever.
"Elway is unbelievable when he's got time and he's healthy. He can work miracles," says senior Quarterback Jamie McAlister of New Mexico State, who himself completed 26 of 38 for 385 yards and four touchdowns in a 28-26 loss to Wichita State last month. "As far as arms go, Elway's got everybody beat. But if any quarterback has a line that can win the battle up front, he only has to be an adequate passer to get things done."
This year's stats are proof of that assertion, because never before have quarterbacks had so much time to throw. Since 1980, when a rule change reduced the penalty for offensive holding from 15 yards to 10 and allowed offensive linemen to extend their arms and use their hands while blocking, the battle up front has been as futile for pass rushers as the charge was for the Light Brigade. Alabama Coach Bear Bryant disparagingly calls the 1980 regulation "the offensive-line holding rule," and Wyoming Coach Al Kincaid says, "There are guys getting away with murder. I don't know how you can have a pass rush in college football anymore." Adding to the blockers' edge is the fact that officials are reluctant to call holding because the use-of-hands rule is so vague and because they're so often pulled downfield—and out of position to watch for holding—by passing plays. Some crafty coaches have exacerbated the officials' difficulties in detecting holding by outfitting blockers with gloves that match the color of opponents' jerseys.
Secondaries have been hindered, too, by a long-standing interpretation, written into the rule book this year, that prohibits a defensive player from bumping a receiver once the receiver has drawn even with him. "Used to be, you could beat the hell out of a receiver, just keep on bumping and shoving him," says former Florida State Assistant Coach Bob Harbison. Now defenders are permitted just one "bump" before they become involved in a high-speed chase.