There goes Melvin Gordon, ripping off another long run. And there’s Samaje Perine piling up yards in punishing fashion. Oh, look, here comes Tevin Coleman — and there he goes, sprinting away from a bunch of flailing defenders.
College football teams have been running wild this season, averaging more yards per carry and per game than at any time in recent years. Having game-breakers such as Gordon, Perine and Coleman carrying the ball has helped lead this ground game revolution, but something more is happening.
Defenses that have been built to withstand getting bombarded by passes and had been stretched thin by spread offenses for years are now finding it hard to plug holes. Offenses have rediscovered the running game, doing so with diversity and creativity.
“I don’t think there’s any question there is some correlation,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, whose spread offense has always strived for a more balanced approach. “I think defenses … are improved in stopping spread offenses and I think teams are leaning back more toward the run than they did maybe a few years ago.”
Eighteen FBS teams are averaging more than 250 yards rushing per game. Last season, just 13 did that. The year before it was eight. In 2011 it was seven. In 2009, four teams averaged more than 250 yards rushing per game, and three of them were triple-option teams: Georgia Tech, Air Force and Navy.
Nationally, yards per carry in FBS was 4.22 in 2008. In 2011, it had inched up to 4.28. Then it jumped to 4.40 in 2012 and this season it’s 4.50.
“I’ve seen it come full circle,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, a coaching descendent of Hal Mumme and Mike Leach’s pass-happy Air Raid offense. He’s developed a more balanced approach in recent years.
California coach Sonny Dykes, another member of the Air Raid family tree, said one of the first steps toward making the Air Raid more grounded was changing the way offensive linemen lined up.
In the Air Raid and schemes like it, offensive linemen take wide splits, setting up several yards apart. This forces defenses to spread from side to side, putting more distance between edge pass rushers and quarterbacks and creating clearer throwing lanes.
The down side came in the running game.
“It really limits the schemes that you can run from the run-game perspective,” Dykes said. “We all felt like we wanted to have a little bit more run game. As a result the splits of the offensive linemen started to change. Instead of really wide they were close together. That allowed more pulling and that type of thing.”
When those pass-heavy teams did start running the ball, what they found was defenses that had shrunk.
Instead of the standard 4-3 (four defensive linemen and three linebackers) or 3-4 alignments, many teams had gone to a 4-2-5 set up or something similar with extra defensive back to cover extra receivers.
“People recruit to stop the spread. A lot of times those guys are more space players than box players,” said Baylor coach Art Briles, whose version of the spread has become as good at running through opponents as it is at throwing over them.
TCU coach Gary Patterson, a former defensive coordinator who converted to a spread offense this season, said stopping the run is all about numbers and leverage.
“Trying to find ways to get more people in the box because they can stretch you vertically,” he said. “That’s the million-dollar question for defensive coordinators on a week-to-week basis against those kinds of offenses.”
It’s not just the spread though. Wisconsin doesn’t spread the field, but few teams run the ball better than the Badgers and Heisman Trophy contender Gordon, who set an FBS record with 408 yards rushing against Nebraska two weeks ago — only have it broken the very next Saturday by Perine. Oklahoma’s fabulous freshman went for 427 against Kansas.
Chris Brown, author of the book “The Essential Smart Football,” said he sees more teams using misdirection — the offense flows one direction and the runner goes the other — and presnap motion to freeze defenders and spring runners.
“Either through the option stuff, whether it’s triple-option or read-option, but then also just fakes: Fake sweeps, fake counters. Window dressing for your base plays have come back in vogue,” Brown said. “Both Auburn and Wisconsin, who run pretty different offenses, both of them run a lot of those jet sweeps and they fake a lot of jets sweeps before handing off to pretty good running backs.”
Gordon is averaging 8.30 yards per carry, on pace to break Barry Sanders’ single-season mark for runners with at least 280 carries of 7.64 set in his astounding 1988 season. Sanders ran a record 2,628 in 11 games. Gordon is in reach of that mark but he’ll need more games to get there. Gordon has 2,109 yards in 11 games with at least two more left.
Indiana’s Coleman could also top Sanders’ yards per carry mark. He has run for 1,906 yards and 7.91 per carry.
At a time when the value of running backs has never been lower at the next level — none have been drafted in the first round the past two seasons — Gordon, Coleman, Perine and a host of others are doing their best to change that perception.
“All of us running backs around the country are trying to make a statement that we are important,” Gordon said. “That we aren’t easily replaceable.”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoap
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