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Harris: Passing offenses narrowing the talent gap

| Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich watches as the Ducks play the Tennessee Volunteers on September 14, 2013 at the Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.
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Oregon coach Mark Helfrich watches as the Ducks play the Tennessee Volunteers on September 14, 2013 at the Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.

Expanding the playbook always has been an intelligent and creative option for coaches with lesser talent to close the gap against superior opponents. It's reached a point where even the better programs are switching to no-huddle, uptempo passing offenses with greater frequency.

Of the 24 teams averaging at least 300 passing yards per game, 12 appear in this week's AP Top 25 poll. Five teams averaged 300 passing yards in last year's final poll.

Granted, it's a small body of work. Some teams have played three games this season, while most have played only two. But it reveals an early trend that coaches understand a sophisticated passing game enhances their chances of winning.

“I ran the pistol four, five years ago,” said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, whose team ranks No. 23 in passing offense. “It brings some uniqueness. It gives you advantages on things we've used in the past.”

No. 3 Clemson and No. 10 Texas A&M are the only ranked teams that averaged 300 passing yards at the end of last season that also average 300 yards through the air this season. No. 2 Oregon, No. 7 Louisville, No. 8 Florida State, No. 9 Georgia and No. 22 Notre Dame didn't average 300 passing yards when they made last year's final poll, but they do now.

No. 11 Oklahoma State, No. 17 Washington, No. 20 Baylor, No. 23 Arizona State and No. 25 Texas Tech — all averaging 300 passing yards — didn't appear in last year's final poll.

Texas A&M hosts SMU on Saturday following a 49-42 loss to No. 1 Alabama. As it did in last year's 29-24 victory, Texas A&M led early. However, Alabama took control and held on despite a late comeback led by quarterback Johnny Manziel, who passed for 464 yards and five touchdowns.

In its two most recent games against Alabama, Texas A&M gave itself a chance to win both times by averaging 35.5 points and 523 yards.

The Aggies' impressive offensive displays give hope to other SEC teams such as No. 21 Mississippi, which visits Alabama on Sept. 28.

Jadeveon sacked

Remember South Carolina junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and the preseason hype about him becoming the second defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy? Clowney has two sacks in three games after recording 13 sacks in 12 games last season and brutally dislodging Michigan's Devin Gardner from the ball in the Outback Bowl.

What went wrong? Instead of challenging Clowney — at one time considered the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft — opponents smartly decided to run away from him this year. As a result, Clowney's sack totals are down, along with any realistic chance of him being invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony.

It's been a frustrating time for Clowney, a big-time playmaker who wants his coaches to create more ways for him to disrupt offenses. Unfortunately, Clowney can't make plays if teams aren't running — or passing — in his direction.

Off the bench

Things are getting dicey for first-year South Florida coach Willie Taggart, the second-youngest coach in a BCS conference. Desperate for his first win following three losses, including embarrassing home setbacks against McNeese State and Florida Atlantic by a combined 50 points, Taggart is turning the offense over to former Penn State quarterback Steven Bench.

South Florida's next game is Sept. 28 against No. 16 Miami.

Bench appeared in two games for the Nittany Lions as a freshman in 2012. He completed two passes for 12 yards against Virginia and gained 18 yards on three rushing attempts. He also saw action against Purdue.

Bench transferred to South Florida after spring football and was eligible immediately due to NCAA sanctions at Penn State. Bench started out No. 3 on the depth chart. However, Taggart lost patience with senior Bobby Eveld and sophomore Matt Florida and gave the ball to Bench, who is 8 of 24 for 128 yards and a touchdown in two games.

Duck dynasty

The secret to Oregon's success may have as much to do with coaching stability as it does on-field personnel.

Oregon is 3-0 entering its bye week. The Ducks are ranked No. 2 in the country. They're No. 2 in scoring offense and total offense, No. 4 in run offense and No. 4 in scoring defense.

“We believe wholeheartedly from top to bottom in what we're doing. It's a program thing,” said first-year coach Mark Helfrich, who replaced Chip Kelly. Helfrich had been Oregon's offensive coordinator since 2009.

New offensive coordinator Scott Frost also has been at the school since 2009.

Running backs coach Gary Campbell has been at Oregon for 31 years. That's four more years than any other assistant in the nation has spent at one school.

Oregon also has 27 years of experience from offensive line coach Steve Greatwood (two stints) and 22 years from defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti (three stints). Linebackers coach Don Pellum is in his 22nd year at the school.

Tackling machine

Robert Morris redshirt senior linebacker Mike Cook can probably use the bye week. Cook recorded a career-high 19 tackles against Dayton, one shy of the school record and the most by a Robert Morris defender since 2010. It marked Cook's seventh career double-figure tackle total and sixth in the past 12 games. Cook leads the Colonials with 38 tackles and has 151 for his career.

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