Nicknames were the vogue in the Davis family of Independence, Ore., and by the time all the kids were labeled, their mother's call to dinner sounded like an appeal for an exterminator.
"We were Birdie, Blackie, Teancie, Tickie and Mouse," says Mouse, a/k/a Darrel Davis, now 47 and head football coach at Portland State University, a Division I-AA school of 16,500 students. "Mouse stuck so well that by the time I graduated from high school, none of the teachers knew my real name."
Davis is indeed small and darting, with tiny hands that nonetheless served him well as a quarterback and halfback at Oregon College of Education in Monmouth. Far less mousy are bright coyote eyes and an irrepressible urge to confound. Employing these and a devotion to his kind—all the 5'6", 160-pound athletes that sensible football schools shun—Davis has developed an attack that has enabled the Vikings to challenge all NCAA schools for the lead in passing and total offense for the past four years. In that span, Portland State has won 32 and lost 20, a program-saving reversal of a 9-24 record before Davis' arrival from Oregon high school coaching. Led by quarterbacks June Jones, who has gone on to the Atlanta Falcons, and Neil Lomax, now a junior majoring in communications, Davis' Run-and-Shoot offense has produced an average of 36 points and 485 yards a game, and has proved itself to be a spectacular mode of consternating opponents.
The R&S develops out of what is essentially a double-slot formation in which both ends are split and halfbacks line up in the gaps off tackle, and the term was coined in a book by Glenn (Tiger) Ellison, once a Woody Hayes assistant at Ohio State. "We swiped it," admits Davis, "but we changed it. Ellison was still run-oriented. We always pass first and run second."
The object is to make the defense the last to know what is going on. First a back or an end in motion gives pause to the secondary, then the quarterback sprints to one side, usually still with the option of pitching to a trailing back. Then all the receivers (four, unless the trail-back is out there, too), rather than running set patterns, react to what the defensive backs have decided to do. The 6'3", 214-pound Lomax, watching the same defensive keys, anticipates his receivers' moves and puts the ball where necessary. He is so proficient that he has completed 56% of his passes for an astounding 8,105 yards and 63 touchdowns in the 28 games he has played since he broke in as a freshman.
Last Saturday afternoon at San Francisco State, Lomax surpassed NCAA major-college career passing yardage and total offense leaders Jack Thompson of Washington State (the Division I-A passing leader) and Gene Swick of Toledo (the total offense leader in I-A). It was hard for Lomax to get excited about the feat, because he has his senior year yet to play. For the season his 2,887 yards gained on 208 completions plus 58 rushing yards puts Lomax 1,004 yards ahead of any other quarterback in Division 1-AA, and his favorite target, 5'9", 165-pound Slotback Stuart Gaussoin, leads the nation in receptions with 81 for 1,054 yards and eight touchdowns.
Opportunity, of course, has something to do with these remarkable numbers. Against Northern Colorado, Lomax passed 77 times and completed 44, both NCAA records for any division, yet Portland State lost 21-20. The Vikings are 4-4 this season, although the defeats have come by a total of six points.
"Sometimes opposing coaches will sidle over after a game and ask how to defense us," says Davis. "I say it takes either a monstrous defensive line to clamp down on things before our little bitty kids get all scattered out, or it takes clearly superior athletes. Frankly, when the players and execution have been equal on both sides, we simply haven't been defensed."
Portland State is a commuter college nestled against Oregon's fir-covered southwest hills. The football program is supported neither by state funding nor student fees. Ticket sales finance the operation, and when Lomax wants extra tickets for friends and family he sits down and writes a check for them. "To say this is a shoestring outfit is too kind," says Davis. "The premium is on imagination."
For one thing, Portland State has no football field. The Vikings practice in venerable Civic Stadium, where the venerable artificial turf is growing shiny between the 40s. There they throw and throw until the receivers have run three miles of imaginative patterns; until Lomax begins to list to the right, his throwing arm swinging two inches lower than his left; until the team is chased out by flocks of dimpled cheerleaders, harbingers of that afternoon's high school game.