Commentary

Running games take a backseat to pass-happy offenses in Big 12

Originally Published: August 14, 2008
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

Where have you gone Ricky Williams?

And how about you, Adrian Peterson and Troy Davis?

Great running backs used to dot the Big 12 like buffalo scattered across the Great Plains. But the Big 12's once-mighty tradition as a producer of tailbacks is taking a hit because of a plethora of spread offenses, strong-armed passers and fleet receivers.

[+] EnlargeMurray DeMarco
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImageIf he stays healthy, Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray has game-breaking ability.

Today, players like Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, Missouri's Jeremy Maclin and Chase Daniel, and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford are the poster boys for the Big 12's offensive explosion and command most of the league's national attention.

The Big 12's running backs are almost an afterthought -- an amazing trend considering the conference once was on the forefront for producing bruising, between-the-tackle ball carriers. Davis was a Heisman finalist in 1995 and '96 and Williams won the conference's first Heisman in 1998.

Never has this trend appeared more pronounced than in the upcoming season. Only one 1,000-yard back returns in 2008 -- Nebraska's Marlon Lucky. That marks the lowest total heading into a season in Big 12 history.

Want an example of how much the once-vaunted position has fallen in the Big 12 this season? Only one running back was invited to the conference's media days last month. And Iowa State's Jason Scales finished last season on the bench, watching Alexander Robinson produce as the Cyclones' featured back.

And only three times during last season was a conference back chosen as the Big 12's player of the week. That compares with nine times in the conference's first season in 1996, seven times in 1997 and nine times again in 1998.

For the first time in the history of the conference, the league's top rusher failed to average more yards per game than the top receiver. The 124.5 yards per game produced by Texas' Jamaal Charles was nowhere close to Crabtree's 150.9-per-game average as a receiver.

These changes have new Nebraska coach Bo Pelini wondering if this is the same conference he left after serving as the Cornhuskers' defensive coordinator in 2003.

"I was really taken aback when I first got back to Nebraska seeing the numbers, the offensive numbers, that were happening in the Big 12," Pelini said. "For a defensive guy, that kind of woke me up a little bit about how things have changed."

The transformation represents a massive seismic shift from the past. The Big 12's two predecessors -- the old Big Eight and Southwest Conference -- had ground-bound traditions as strong as any nationally.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Scott
Chris Williamson/Icon SMITeammates predict a Heisman Trophy in Colorado newcomer Darrell Scott's future.

Those were the conferences that helped produce the wishbone offense, the Pony Express backfield and Nebraska's power-packed running attack from the I formation. The Cornhuskers used that philosophy to smash their way to back-to-back national championships in the two years before the conference began play in 1996 and a share of the Big 12's first national title in 1997.

Kansas defensive coordinator Clint Bowen remembers those days well --both as a player and a fan. As a young boy, he used to sneak through cracks at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence to watch Big Eight games with his brothers. And he tried to stop those battering-ram attacks when he was a Jayhawks player.

"In those days, it seemed like everybody in the old Big Eight had a big back and they just ran the ball and ran it," Bowen said. "Those days have really changed. The spread has caused people to evolve and change their thinking."

Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson always featured elements of a power running game at his previous jobs. His Colorado backfield that led the Buffaloes to four North Division titles during a five-year period was characterized by tough inside running with backs like Chris Brown and Bobby Purify.

And he'd like to feature a similar philosophy at times with the Cornhuskers, even with all of the spread offenses sprouting around him.

"There's an element of us that would always like to have a back that can dictate tempo and run downhill," Watson said. "You still see that some, but not as much as the guys in the spread who are trying to get guys out in space."

The conference's top two returning rushers are facing big challenges in order to earn even their teams' starting jobs. Lucky is involved in a tight battle with Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille for playing time in Nebraska's offense.

"We want to be able to play physical football in Nebraska," Pelini said. "We want to be able to run the football when we want to and not let people dictate to us, but dictate to the defense what we want to do -- impose our will on the opposing team."

We want to be able to play physical football in Nebraska. We want to be able to run the football when we want to and not let people dictate to us, but dictate to the defense what we want to do -- impose our will on the opposing team.

-- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini

Jake Sharp, who rushed for 821 yards last season, is currently Mark Mangino's top back at Kansas. But he's expected to eventually face a playing-time push from Jocques Crawford, a heralded transfer from Cisco Junior College who led the nation's juco backs with 1,935 yards last season.

Three other Big 12 running backs have shown promise as potential game-breakers and a link to the conference's run-based glory days. But Texas A&M's Mike Goodson has never been more than a situational back. Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray has been injury-prone throughout his career, and Colorado's Darrell Scott has never played in a college game.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has told reporters that Murray could rival Peterson as the best back he's ever coached.

Aggies coach Mike Sherman moved Jorvorskie Lane to fullback so Goodson could be featured.

And after several early practices, Colorado teammates have compared Scott, the conference's most heralded incoming freshman recruit, to Eric Dickerson and a young Jim Brown because of his unique combination of size, speed and power.

"As seniors and leaders, we have to show him how to play football," Colorado defensive tackle George Hypolite told reporters about Scott. "We have to show him how to prepare, how to work, how to work smart, how to be a smart football player in practice and all those things. If we do that, say in three years, if I'm worth my salt in doing that, he will be a Heisman Trophy winner."

But whether any of them can rejuvenate the Big 12's running philosophy remains to be seen.

Tim Griffin covers college football for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.