Born to run: Why it's all about the ground game in FCS football
The North Dakota State Bison ran for 499 yards in their season-opening win against Mississippi Valley State. Two players ran for more than 125 yards each; in all, five players ran for more than 50 yards apiece. The Bison scored seven touchdowns on the ground, averaged 9.4 yards per carry and lost yardage just once in 53 attempts.
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The Bison are an extreme example here. They’re the gold-run standard of the FCS. But this is a recurring theme in the FCS: Control the clock, move the sticks, wait for a big play and churn out the victories.
Sure, everyone chucks the ball once in a while. But running the ball is still considered the way to play it safe. And in the FCS, it can be positively explosive.
Richmond leads the country in passing yards per game with 380.7. North Dakota State averages 436.5 yards on the ground. The Citadel — the second-most prolific running attack in the FCS — averages only 0.7 rushing yards per game less than Richmond does passing yards.
Josh Mack, the Maine tailback who leads the FCS in rushing yards per game, needed just 13 carries to scamper for 255 yards in his last outing. That’s 19.6 yards per carry. His longest run went for 66 yards. Western Carolina running back Detrez Newsome, who leads the FCS in total rushing yards, went for 288 of them on just 15 carries against Davidson in Week 2. That’s 19.2 yards per tote. He ripped off an 88-yard touchdown.
It’s more of the same everywhere you look. In his first college game, Yale halfback Zane Dudek carried the ball nine times for 131 yards. Dunn, mentioned earlier, ranks third in the FCS in rushing yards — and he has only 26 carries through two games. Six players are averaging 10-plus yards per attempt: Newsome, Dunn, Dudek, Penn’s Karekin Brooks (14.2), North Carolina Central’s Isaiah Totten (10.9) and Harvard’s Charlie Booker III (10.7).
For reference, North Carolina A&T quarterback Lamar Raynard leads all qualifiers in yards per passing attempt at 11.5. The number of quarterbacks averaging north of 10 yards per attempt is the same as running backs — six. There have been exactly 20 passing plays and 20 rushing plays that have gone for 70 yards or more in the FCS this season.
Again, which tactic is supposed to produce the biggest plays?
Three yards and a cloud of dust is a thing of the past in the FCS.
It’s not just about the rushing attack explosiveness, either. It’s about variety. Most of these teams rely on multiple tailbacks to juice the offense, maybe one reason so many big plays are happening.
No team gets to 436.5 rushing yards per game, like North Dakota State does, without multiple dynamic ballcarriers. Dunn and Anderson each rank in the country’s top 15 in yards per game. Ty Brooks, the Bison’s third stringer, ranks in the Top 30. Dartmouth has two players, Rashaad Cooper and Ryder Stone, inside of the Top 25. Perhaps most impressive: The Citadel, which has the second-best running game in the FCS, has one ballcarrier in the Top 40. That's Grant Drakeford, who averages 81 yards per game.
The Citadel has a seemingly endless supply of capable runners. The Bulldogs have five players who average at least 50 yards per game: Drakeford, Cam Jackson, Dominique Allen, Brandon Rainey and Jordan Black. Opposing defensive coordinators don’t know if you’re going to be dealing with speed or strength — maybe both? — on any given play.
The FBS has plenty of prolific rushing attacks, too, but the calculus is different than the FCS. Georgia Tech leads the nation in rushing yards per game at 372.5. But nine offenses — at Texas Tech, UCLA, UCF, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Washington State, Oklahoma State, Arkansas State and New Mexico State — boast passing games that generate more yards per game than that.
The FCS has six runners who average more than 10 yards per carry. The FBS has two. This isn’t to denigrate the FBS at all. If we're talking passing, the FBS has an edge in just about every category. It’s all about preference. There are high-scoring teams and superb offenses in both divisions. The FCS just goes about things a different way.
Of course, there are pass-oriented FCS teams (like Richmond) and run-oriented FBS teams (Georgia Tech). But if you take a Saturday and decide to focus on FCS, you can see some running attacks like you’ve never seen before.
Consider yourselves warned.