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Cliff Brunt | The Associated Press | September 10, 2015

Spread boosts college football rushing numbers

  Ohio State ran for 360 yards in its season debut, including this 40-yard burst by J.T. Barrett.

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) โ€” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez joked that he had just two runs in the playbook when he implemented his now-famous spread offense at Glenville State in the 1990s.

"I had a couple of good receivers, and I said, 'I'll just get me five dumpy linemen who can get run over slowly and go two-minute drill the whole game,'" he said. "And that's what we did."

Then, Rodriguez started tinkering. He had success as an offensive coordinator with mobile quarterbacks Shaun King at Tulane and Woodrow Dantzler at Clemson. Eventually, others borrowed from his approach, and dual-threat quarterbacks running spread offenses started winning Heisman trophies and national titles.

Still, most coaches continued to focus on the advantages the spread created in the passing game, and with good results. Football Bowl Subdivision teams set almost every major passing record in 2012, including best completion percentage (.605) and most yards per game (238.3).

But the running game also has gotten a boost the past few years. The NCAA record book shows that FBS teams averaged 176 yards rushing per contest last season โ€” the highest total since 1980. According to STATS, through the first full weekend this season, FBS teams averaged 194.5 yards rushing per game, up from 191.1 the first weekend last year. Regardless of the run or pass emphasis of today's offensive systems, spreading the field has created running lanes that coaches are now more willing and prepared to exploit.

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"The old thing was, you spread to throw," Rodriguez said. "I think people are spreading to run just as much as anything else. You're getting really talented guys with the ball in space, so numbers are up everywhere โ€” passing yards, rushing yards."

As recently as 2006, teams rushed for just 140.1 yards a game, the lowest average since 1939, and teams ran just 35 times per contest, the lowest total since the NCAA began keeping track.

Times have changed drastically. The teams that played for the national title last year โ€” Ohio State and Oregon โ€” are spread teams that lean heavily on the run game out of the spread.

Some coaches cite up-tempo offenses and the high number of plays for the increase in rushing yardage, but efficiency is a bigger factor. Last season's average of 4.46 yards per carry matched the previous year's total for the highest in the NCAA record book, which goes back to 1937.

Smaller schools are finding more running space out of the spread, too. Louisiana-Lafayette, from the Sun Belt Conference, averaged 226 yards and 5.4 yards per carry last season. Arkansas State, another Sun Belt team, ran for 216 yards per game and 4.9 yards a carry last season. Both ranked among the nation's top 25 rushing teams.

The fear of the spread passing game has opened up the run.

"You have to defend more guys on the perimeter," Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. "The perimeter screen game is integrated in almost everybody's offenses. You've got to cover everybody now, you can't just load up the box, so the run looks are better."

The quarterback run game plays a key role in the increased rushing numbers. According to STATS, quarterback rushing accounted for 25.7 yards per game, per team, last season. That's up from 12.5 in 2006. The past five Heisman Trophy winners โ€” Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota โ€” have been dual-threat quarterbacks. The threat of the quarterback run eliminates the numbers advantage defenses once had because the quarterback must be accounted for.

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"That element totally changes everything," Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. "All of a sudden, there's an extra blocker, and you can't outnumber them in the run game. Sometimes, you have to play base defense and just hope somebody can get off a block and make a play. And then sometimes, when you try to outnumber them and have the extra guy for the quarterback run game, now you're manned up in other places. So, it's a cat-and-mouse game."

Offensive coaches have found that spreading the field makes it difficult for defenses to disguise their plans. Adding up-tempo and no-huddle elements to the spread makes it difficult for defensive players to get into proper position. That helps the run game as much as the passing game.

"When you run a lot of plays at different speeds, it's tough on defenses to make a lot of adjustments," Oregon State offensive coordinator Mike Baldwin said. "They get into certain calls and they get stuck in those calls. We put the defenses at a disadvantage because they don't have the multiple adjustments they can do when you're in a huddle."

As the spread has evolved, teams have become more likely to check into running plays at the line of scrimmage.

"The run-pass option stuff has become more and more prevalent throughout the game," Anderson said. "You truly have multiple options every play. That's what I've seen change โ€” how versatile the spread systems have become and how multiple they have become."

AP Sports Writers John Marshall and Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.

This article was written by Cliff Brunt from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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