An offensive evolution in the Pacific-10 Conference is under way. Football teams are spending more time running forward and less time dropping back.
Evidence came with the conference’s record-high six 1,000-yard rushers a season ago, all of them tailbacks.
Five – California’s Jahvid Best, Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers, Stanford’s Toby Gerhart, Arizona’s Nic Grigsby and Oregon’s LeGarrette Blount – were underclassmen, and return this season.
“You’re seeing different things, as far as offenses are concerned,” Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. “The league five or six years ago, you threw the football a little more. Now, you see the running game is more efficient in our league than you’ve seen in a long time.”
Whether it’s a deep and talented pool of running backs, a seismic schematic shift, or a combination of both, the conference’s rushing numbers have sharply risen the past two seasons.
Since the 1990s, total-offense distribution league-wide varied little. Passing accounted for about two-thirds of the total yardage.
But in 2007, rushing totals were at an all-time high – 20,294 yards among the 10 schools – and it made up 40.4 percent of the Pac-10’s offensive output.
Last season, it spiked to 43.3 percent.
Four factors seem to have played roles in the recent trend:
Pete Carroll’s defense
In 2001, Carroll’s transformation of turning Southern California into a national powerhouse began by building a stout, disruptive and athletic defense, with personnel assigned to create havoc on the Pac-10’s prolific passing offenses.
“I think other programs have followed suit,” said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who was an assistant under Carroll with the Trojans. “And those programs realized that if you play solid defense and take care of the ball, you had a good chance to win.”
That sentiment has carried over with the influx of new coaches – Arizona’s Mike Stoops, Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, Washington State’s Paul Wulff, and Sarkisian.
The demand of more physical play has carried over to both sides of the ball, which has put a premium on the running game.
“I don’t know if you can call it a smash-mouth league,” Erickson said, “but it’s a league you need to be very, very physical in.”
The spread offense
Chip Kelly, an innovative offensive coordinator at the University of New Hampshire, was amassing so much yardage in the NCAA Division I-AA ranks with the spread offense, it seemed like a NASA engineer with a scientific calculator was needed to add it all up.
When it came time for Oregon coach Mike Bellotti to fine-tune his spread offense, he hired Kelly in 2007. All the Ducks have done since then is lead the Pac-10 in rushing while setting school records in most offensive categories.
“You can’t paint a brush on what a spread offense is,” Kelly said. “For us, it’s a personnel-driven thing. At New Hampshire, we threw 60 times a game. I got to Oregon with Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, and I knew we’d run it.
“It’s a mathematical equation, really. People think I’m crazy, but part of the reason you run the ball so well is you have great wide receivers. You have to have every tool in the toolbox, and can’t be one-dimensional.”
From that evolved the spread option, which is most effective with mobile quarterbacks. Oregon’s Dennis Dixon was the best example of that in Kelly’s attack. Arizona and Stanford have used it, too.
“With the advent of spread offenses ... the running game becomes even more of a tough thing to defend,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said.
Quarterbacks run, too
Part of the explanation for the increase in rushing yards in the Pac-10 can be attributed to quarterbacks who can run, such as Dixon and now Jeremiah Masoli at Oregon and Jake Locker at Washington.
“Part of it is ... their ability to run, and I think part of it is quarterbacks and their inability to throw,” Sarkisian said.
Locker set a Huskies quarterback rushing record as a freshman with 986 yards in 2007, ranking fifth among conference rushers overall. Dixon ran for 583 yards.
Last season, Masoli cracked the top 10 in the league with 718 rushing yards despite not starting until the fourth game.
The most obvious reason for the increased rushing production is a talented group of tailbacks.
Recently, Sun Devils senior linebacker Mike Nixon was asked to rank how the five returning 1,000-yard rushers stack up in terms of difficulty to defend.
“Man, I don’t know if you can rank them numbers 1 through 5. They all have different styles,” Nixon said. “I just feel this year, you’d better be able to stop the run if you want to compete.”
Cal’s Best is considered the top Heisman hopeful among running backs, a big play threat who might be the fastest player in the Pac-10. Rodgers, though only 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds, is one of the rare 25-carry-per-game tailbacks. Gerhart is a bigger (6-1, 235), more physical type runner who can pound defenses. Grigsby and Blount are a blend of speed and power.
And it doesn’t have to be about one guy, or even two. USC has a stable of seven running backs it can use, led by Joe McKnight. The Huskies plan to rotate four running backs, with Chris Polk the starter. And Washington State will split carries among Dwight Tardy, James Montgomery and Logwone Mitz.
“Without a doubt, as a running backs coach, you’d like to see guys get 1,000 yards,” said WSU assistant Steve Broussard, a former Cougars’ standout tailback.
“But you’ve got to find a guy that understands how to run. Once they’re given the ball, they have the mind-set to take it and go.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442