In kind of a weird coincidence, two articles on the resurgence of the running game in college football popped up yesterday, this one from Dennis Dodd and another from Andrea Adelson.
Both share some common themes, for instance, the role a running quarterback plays in changing the numbers game. Adelson quotes Rich Rodriguez.
When Rodriguez first started implementing the spread as an assistant 27 years ago, it was with throwing more in mind. But as the offense evolved, he found himself spreading more to run. The reason? A simple numbers game.
“We felt you had to have less good blocks to have a successful run than if you put everybody in there tight,” Rodriguez explained. “If we got two or three blocks at the point of attack, and the rest of the guys get run over slowly, we’ve got a chance — as opposed to having to make five or six blocks. So that was our reasoning behind spreading to run. And having the quarterback with a threat to run makes defenses play all 11 guys instead of playing 11 on 10.”
And that’s the gist of Dodd’s piece.
Average quarterback rush yards has nearly doubled in the last decade, according to research compiled by SportSource Analytics. Quarterback yards per carry are up 53 percent (1.83 in 2005, 2.83 in 2014).
Rushing yards gained by quarterbacks accounted for more than 15 percent of the national rushing yardage total last year. That’s up from 10.5 percent a decade ago.
It’s no secret why.
“The advent of the spread and the quarterback being a viable runner,” explained Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “As a former defensive coordinator, that’s your biggest nightmare — a quarterback who can hurt you both ways.”
In that defensive coordinator parlance, an offense that features a running quarterback is called a “plus one.” Simply put, the defense has to account for 11 players, instead of 10. Down through the ages, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. In the last 10-15 years with advent of spread offenses, it’s been the norm.
You can tell from the flavor of both of those quotes that the rise of the spread is another common theme. And, again, it’s hard to argue with the numbers.
Defenses have been struggling to catch up. Over the past three seasons, running backs have averaged 5.1 yards per carry — higher than any point since 2004. According to ESPN Stats & Information, teams faced an average of 6.8 defenders in the box last season, a number that has been slowly dropping since the average was 7.0 in 2011.
Hmmm… that stat rings a bell from somewhere. Oh, yeah.
Note that Georgia and Arkansas, two unabashed pro-style offenses with power running attacks, sit well above that 6.8 DITB average. They’re obviously not playing that numbers game the way Rodriguez does. But what’s interesting is that there’s another common point to Adelson’s and Dodd’s pieces – Nick Chubb. And of course, Chubb doesn’t run from a spread attack. So what’s he doing there? Adelson has an explanation that I can buy into about that:
Traditional power run teams might be dwindling, but some coaches believe they have benefited from the spread too. With more defensive schemes predicated on slowing down the spread, players are not accustomed to playing downhill, power run teams.
Virginia assistant Chris Beatty worked at Wisconsin last year and watched Melvin Gordon run for 2,587 yards — the second-highest total in NCAA history. Gordon is a rare talent in his own right, but defenses not only struggled to tackle him, they struggled to defend the right gaps.
“It’s harder and harder on defenses, and I think an advantage for us at Wisconsin was everybody’s geared to stop the spread now,” Beatty said. “We were one of a handful of teams that runs a pro-style offense, so it creates an issue personnel-wise for defenses — how do they want to be? For us with Melvin Gordon, it was hard for people to match up.”
As I’ve said plenty of times, there is value in being contrary.