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Scoring is up as offenses rely on no-huddle to tire defenses

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin (11) communicates with his teammates at the line of scrimmage against the Navy Midshipmen at Beaver Stadium in University Park on September 22, 2012. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

An increasing number of college football teams are using the fast-paced, no-huddle offense so effectively that the game's richest and most powerful coach stamped his seal of disapproval on the practice. It's officially now a trend.

“Is that what we want football to be?” groused Nick Saban, whose Alabama team is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 after winning last year's national championship.

Actually, yes, was the general response.

“Everybody's just playing by the rules right now,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin told reporters.

Saban's ire was raised by West Virginia's 70-63 win over Baylor and other basketball-like scores that are becoming the norm.

FBS teams are on a record scoring pace, averaging 30.1 points a game, 1.7 more than the mark set in 2007.

In addition to the no-huddle, the just-as-popular spread offense is a big part of that.

Saban said the speed of the game fueled by the no-huddle is a concern “in terms of player safety” because the inability to substitute on defense creates long, taxing drives.

“Players are walking around and can't even get lined up,” he said.

But until defenses adjust, as they invariably will, the no-huddle remains en vogue. Because it works.

Saban is right; it does make players more tired, especially when offenses like Oregon's try to squeeze a play off every few seconds.

And it's not just teams that like to spread the field; more conservative coaches are adopting the no-huddle, too. Like first-year Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, whose last job was offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, a noted no-huddle practitioner.

In their 39-28 win over Northwestern last week, the Nittany Lions ran an astounding 99 plays (the FBS average is 71.7, also an all-time high). One reason for so many plays was Northwestern's tissue-paper defense, but another was O'Brien's no-huddle, which he terms the NASCAR offense.

“It was effective,” the understated O'Brien said afterward.

The ‘equalizer'

Meanwhile, complaints from a coach who makes more than $5 million a year and runs college football's top program inspired enthusiastic rejoinders from some of his peers on conference calls with reporters.

“I think it's great for the game,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who has studied and admires Oregon's supersonic attack.

Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze described the no-huddle to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger as an “equalizer,” and this was after Alabama beat his Rebels, 33-14.

But it was a moral victory of sorts (and a shout-out to the no-huddle) because the Tide's top-ranked defense is allowing just seven points a game.

“Hardly anyone huddles anymore,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “People are playing at a much faster tempo. They're getting more snaps, which creates fatigue for the defense, which now creates poor angles to the ball, which affects how you tackle. So you're seeing more explosive plays.”

Origin of no-huddle

The no-huddle gradually has spread over time, its evolution hastened by the likes of Oregon and others. But its origin is up for debate. Legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson got some credit for starting it with his “Go-Go” offense of the mid-1950s, but later he said the Sooners did, in fact, huddle, although very quickly.

Pepper Rodgers, who coached several college teams and enjoyed trying new things, said he “dabbled” with the no-huddle as early as 1970, when his Kansas squad used it against Colorado. In 1977 at Georgia Tech, Rodgers used it as his staple.

“The fact of the matter is that I got bored easily so I needed a new toy,” he said in a telephone interview. “We never huddled. We'd line up, and I would send in a tight end and he would go up to the quarterback and tell him the play, and the quarterback would call the play with a signal, like they do today.

“The purpose was to get the defense not be able to substitute, and to tire the defense out. They always had to be in the defensive stance. They had no idea.”

As an Iowa State assistant, Jackie Sherrill said he recalls playing a San Diego State team coached by legendary offensive innovator Don Coryell using the no-huddle in the early 1970s. Later, as head coach at Pitt, Sherrill said he had quarterback Dan Marino run it.

“We called it from the sideline, and Danny did everything else,” Sherrill said. “We did a lot of on-the-ball stuff. But it wasn't like today, not as fast. Today they want to run a play every eight seconds.

“People think that things today are things we just generated. That's not true. It's the variations that are generated. But I don't care who you are, if you don't have the people you're not gonna be successful.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7810.

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