Barry Jacobs has written about ACC sports for more than three decades. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, the Sporting News and has written five books on ACC-related topics. He is also a member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners.
Shifts in advantage between offense and defense arent always obvious. This spring, laments were heard far and wide over modern lows in scoring in college basketball. This came as a bit of a surprise to residents of the Triangle, home to the ACC mens three most productive point-producing teams.
Theres no mistaking the balance in college football, though, here or elsewhere: offense is dictating the terms of engagement.
It's a natural progression that started back in 1934 when the rules committee shrunk the ball by an inch to make passing easier, 83-year-old Dan Jenkins, the official National Football Foundation historian, explained in an e-mail. Players are bigger and faster, arms are stronger, high schools throw more today defense, sadly, is becoming a thing of the past. A great many rules changes have encouraged this, the thinking being that fans have smaller attention spans. Today, young people want instant success and luxury and more touchdowns.
Certainly there have been times when scoring was less prevalent, when the college football conversation was less focused on breakneck tempo and spread offenses, on number of plays run per game and isolating players in space (which sounds suspiciously like an astronauts worst nightmare).
But, seemingly without warning, spread offenses are evident from Greenville to Chapel Hill, along with no-huddle and hurry-up approaches. Teams are rushing to score like motorists in pursuit of three-dollar gas.
An accelerated offensive pace gives defenses less time to react, to call plays, to make sophisticated adjustments, to disguise intentions, to substitute, to rest. Defensive signals must sometimes be reduced to a single word.
Points, thats all that matters, said Jim Knowles, Dukes defensive coordinator. No little kids are growing up anymore wanting to be a defensive coordinator. Its a nightmare in terms of the speed and the pressure of the game.
Knowles was the defensive coordinator at Western Michigan when he first encountered a spread a little more than a decade ago, courtesy of a newly minted head coach named Urban Meyer. If people start to catch on to this, he remembers thinking as the Broncos faced Bowling Green, defenses are in trouble.
Kirk Roper, Knowles offensive counterpart at Duke, has a similar assessment. I think the balance of power in general plays to an offense now, he said. And I think this is a discussion that we have all the time as an offensive staff and a defensive staff.
Play is moving so fast, an article in the August issue of The Voice, a publication of the National Association of Sports Public Address Announcers, counsels readers to employ extreme brevity. With the no-huddle offenses now being run by a large number of college teams, the P.A. announcer has had to go to a no-nonsense hurry-up announcing system, writes Don Essig, Oregons public address voice for 46 years.
High-paced action also is fan- and television-friendly, a key attribute as conference TV contracts are pegged predominantly to football.
Larry Fedora aims for 80 plays per game at North Carolina, which runs the spread. Dont be fooled by last weeks opening loss at South Carolina despite running 79 plays. Fedoras offense spawned 35 Tar Heel individual and team records in 2012, his inaugural season at Chapel Hill.
Dave Doeren, N.C. States new coach, also embraces the spread, a word that means a lot of things these days, he said. Unlike many spread offenses, the Wolfpack intends to strike an even balance between throwing and running the ball, which makes us a little more traditional, I guess, as a spread team, he offered. The Pack ran 87 offensive plays in its opening win over Louisiana Tech.
Doeren cautioned theres a crucial down-side to operating quickly on offense if the spread isnt working, your defense barely gets to rest before its back on the field.
Dukes Knowles has been there. While coaching linebackers at Ole Miss under David Cutcliffe, he recalled hearing gassed defenders watch a quick scoring drive from the sidelines and shout to their offensive teammates: Slow score! Slow score!
In Durham, Cutcliffes amalgamation of no-huddle, read-option, and pro-style passing alignments averaged 74 plays per game the past three seasons. Two of the ACCs top seven career leaders in passing yardage played for him since 2008 (Thaddeus Lewis and Sean Renfree).
The Blue Devils also aspire to 80 plays per contest, which seems to be an industry standard. Wed like to be as fast as anybody in the country, said Roper, the offensive coordinator. His squad ran 77 plays in a 45-0 thrashing of N.C. Central this past Saturday.
In 2011, Football Bowl Subdivision teams averaged 69.8 plays per game.
The offensive explosion is hardly peculiar to the Triangle. Last season three ACC teams finished among the top 10 in league history in points and total yards per game Clemson, North Carolina, and Florida State. The trio were among the top 10 nationally in scoring offense.
Locally, North Carolina scored 40.6 points per game. N.C. State, 28.1 and Duke scored 31.5. Louisiana Tech, held to 14 points by N.C. State last week, led the nation last season with 51.5 points per game.
Overall yards per play, yards per pass play, passing completion percentages, and yards per rush are at or near all-time highs, according to Kent Stephens, historian and curator at the National Football Hall of Fame. The trend certainly has shifted toward the offense, Stephens said. I dont think its any, the-sky-is-falling in college football. Its the natural order of things.
Too much so, complained Gary Darnell, a long-time defensive coordinator and current associate executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. I have not yet seen a single rule passed that favors the defense, he said.
Spreads and football variants of NASCAR racing are nothing new. Darnell, who worked at 11 schools in 36 years in coaching, including North Carolina and Wake Forest, was at Kansas State in 1978 when the offense employed five wideouts to good effect. Gary, that aint football, he recalled being scolded. What are you doing?
Similar tactics recently elevated programs to national prominence from Clemson (where 90 plays per game is the goal) to Texas A&M to Oregon. Ducks coach Chip Kelly migrated east this season to the NFL, where hes introduced the spread with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The trend also has filtered to the prep ranks, according to Rick Strunk of the N.C. High School Athletic Association.
This summer the state of affairs in college football caused Alabamas Nick Saban and Bret Bielema at Arkansas to gripe that a faster pace, with more frequent plays and less frequent substitutions, produces more injuries. They offered no concrete evidence, leading a third SEC coach, Auburn spread practitioner Gus Malzahn, to reportedly call the assertion a joke.
Despite recent developments, veteran football observers are confident the pendulum will shift, if not to favor defense then at least toward other offensive schemes.
After all, they need look no further than Alabama, which employed a traditional power game to win three of the last four national championships. Favored to repeat this season, Alabama easily handled Virginia Tech in its opener.
Not coincidentally, last years talent-laden Crimson Tide led the nation in total defense too. Offense sells tickets and defense wins games, insisted Darnell, a former college linebacker.