Why College Football Defenses Are Bound to Catch Up with Hurry-Up Offenses

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2014

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In the same way that "what comes up must go down," "what scores points must be stopped."

The rule-change proposal that would make offenses wait 10 seconds before snapping the ball—squelching the surprise factor of the hurry-up—makes the assumption that the best way to stop a high-speed attack is to regulate it out of existence.

Though this is a tempting approach, history tells us that for every offensive revolution in the game, there has been a defensive counter-revolution, sending the offensive mastermind back to the drawing board to look for ways to out-maneuver the defensive guru.

It’s a cycle that has gone on since Rutgers and Princeton first met in 1869, and it will go on until the final whistle of the final college football game.

Indeed, if history is any indicator of the future—and it is—the hurry-up offense will one day become as passe as the Single-Wing and the Power-I.


The Forward Pass

Made legal in 1906, the forward pass was the first revolutionary advancement in offense.

As Jim Morrison points out in his article in Smithsonian, the first school to use the forward pass with palpable success was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Pennsylvania), where a guy named Pop Warner was coach.

Morrison references Sally Jenkins’ book The Real All Americans, which includes a contemporary report of Carlisle’s use of the pass by the New York Herald:

The forward pass was child’s play. The Indians tried it on the first down, on the second down, on the third down—any down and in any emergency—and it was seldom that they did not make something with it.

Carlisle finished the 1907 season 10-1 and outscored its opponents 267-62.  Included in the win column were victories over Penn State, Syracuse, Harvard, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, the team that went on to capture the national championship that season.

Jim Thorpe was an All-American at Carlisle in 1911 and 1912.
Jim Thorpe was an All-American at Carlisle in 1911 and 1912.Anonymous/Associated Press/Associated Press

The passing craze swept the nation, causing coaches to retool their defenses from units designed to stop the flying wedge to platoons ready to cover both the run and the pass.


The Modern T

In his book The Wow Boys, James W. Johnson tells the story of the 1940 Stanford team and its coach Clark Shaughnessy, who installed the modern T-formation.

How big of a deal was it?

Well, according to the book, ESPN rated the migration to the T-formation as “the second best sports innovation of all time.”

As for how it played out for Stanford, Shaughnessy took a team that went 1-7-1 in 1939 and transformed it into a 10-0 squad in 1940.  Included in the haul was a Pacific Coast Conference title, a Rose Bowl win over Nebraska and the highest-ever final AP ranking in school history (No. 2).

Here’s how Shaughnessy described the modern T in a 1942 article he penned for Esquire, according to Johnson in The Wow Boys:

[The T] is simply, clearly, definitely and completely a break-away from the old power game based on blocking, power blocking. That is the key point that is never, or seldom ever brought up. Concealment of the ball by the quarterback turning around instantly, as in the early days, sets the stage for a finesse, deceptive, speed type of attack…

Speed or deception football, whether worked from the T formation or any other formation is a complete breakaway from the old power game; it is based on an entirely different strategy, and an entirely different philosophy. This type of play literally opens up the play, just as the swiftness of an airplane and light tanks has opened up the threat of attack in war, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for a wide front of fixed positions to be held effectively.

Even though heavy shades of the T can still be seen in today’s football, defenses eventually joined the movement towards finesse and forced Shaughnessy’s successors back to their chalkboards.

The Run and Shoot

Though the idea of employing four receivers in an offense didn’t become popular in major college football until much later, the concept was born in the late 1950s.

In 1989, Houston and QB Andre Ware rode the Run and Shoot to a No. 14 ranking in the final AP poll and a Heisman.
In 1989, Houston and QB Andre Ware rode the Run and Shoot to a No. 14 ranking in the final AP poll and a Heisman.Joe Patronite/Getty Images

According to an article by Dave Caldwell on Philly.com, the offense was the brainchild of Glenn “Tiger” Ellison, a high school coach from Middletown, Ohio, in 1958.

Ellison went on to write a book called Run-and-Shoot Football: The Now Attack, which inspired Oregon high school coach Darrel “Mouse” Davis, who championed the offense, promoting its use across the nation.

Here’s what Ellison had to say about his offense in a 1989 interview with the Detroit Free Press, according to Caldwell:

I never believed in the forward pass…We’d put the ball in the air, and it’d make me sick to my stomach until it came down. But just like that, I went the other way. I was amazed at what you can do if you have a kid who can throw it and four more who can catch it. You’re just not going to stop them.

So, if it was unstoppable, why isn’t everyone still running it?

According to Smart Football, the Run and Shoot got whacked by the zone blitz:

As the typical story goes, the zone blitz killed the R&S. The preface to this story is that for twenty years, the Run and Shoot did not get blitzed. Well, it did, but Run and Shoot teams (like the U of Houston) would score 60 or 70 on those teams, and the NFL teams that tried it would give up after a quarter or half [of] touchdowns raining from the sky.

Signs of Life for Defense

With nine FBS teams averaging more than 40 points per game in 2013, defense looks to be on the ropes for at least the time being.

Before we assume the hurry-up is here to stay and that scoring numbers are destined to keep rising, consider a few facts.

First, take a look at the median average scoring in the FBS from 2002 to 2013.

FBS Median Scoring 2002-2013
Points per Game+/- Change
201027no change
201127no change
201330no change
CFB Stats, Yahoo Sports and Sports Illustrated

Though average scoring continues to creep up, it’s clear that every couple of points the offense gains are eventually recovered by the defense.

Where defenses were giving up more than 27 points per game in 2002, it worked the number all the way down to 23.4 in 2006 and didn’t allow it to creep back up again until 2010.

Those these statistics may seem insignificant, they establish a clear trend: Offensive production is not speeding forward with no end in sight. It’s more of a back-and-forth business, with both sides making gains and suffering losses.

Next, if the hurry-up and spread approaches really are all-powerful schemes that can’t ever be completely contained, how does a team like Stanford consistently upend high-flying Oregon?

The Cardinal shut down the Ducks offense each of the last two years, allowing 20 points or less to a unit that averaged 45-plus the rest of the season.

No. 10 Oklahoma State beat No. 4 Baylor 49-17 in 2013.
No. 10 Oklahoma State beat No. 4 Baylor 49-17 in 2013.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

And how does unstoppable Baylor—the No. 1-ranked scoring offense—get completely shut down by Oklahoma State in 2013? The Cowboys held the Bears—who averaged 52 points per game last season—to 17 points.

Though a brief trip through college football history—with only three stops—doesn’t tell the whole story, in each case defense reacted to offenses' advancements.

It’s the natural order of things, because why in the world would you change anything on defense if what you are doing is working?

Offense takes the lead, it scores more points and defense finds a way to stop it, not the other way around.

Rather than legislate rule changes to stop scoring, defenses should be left to react, because they will—history is clear on that point.

Call it “laissez-faire” football.

Statistics courtesy of College Football Statistics, College Football Data Warehouse, Sports Reference- College Football, Yahoo Sports and Sports Illustrated.


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