- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I used to think of the forward pass as the Great Equalizer, a way for the lesser teams to compete against the big boys. But now that the big boys are throwing the ball all over the lot - in the Big 12, especially - the Great Equalizer is fast becoming the Great Tranquilizer. Is this what the college game is turning into, Arena ball?

Everybody likes to see points scored, but football - in some corners of the country, anyway - has gotten seriously out of whack; the balance between offense and defense has practically disappeared. Offenses will line up with five receivers and no running back and pass the opposition into obeisance. It’s like a computer game. It doesn’t seem real.

Remember when great teams could stop the opposition as well as light up the scoreboard? Well, Oklahoma gave up 41 Saturday night against Oklahoma State - and it’s probably going to the BCS championship game. Why? Because it scored 61. Sixty points these days is the New 40. If you don’t drop 60 on somebody, you’re a piker.

Heck, seven of the top 10 teams in the rankings have scored 60 points against some dazed foe this season. The Sooners, who average 53.3, have been totally ridiculous. They’ve scored 40 points in a HALF six times (and 40 points in the second and third quarters another time).

Granted, football has to evolve, but the current species comes across as more of a mutation. Take the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game. Beginning early in the second quarter, this is how the Sooners’ offensive possessions went:

Fourteen plays, 79 yards, touchdown.

Fourteen plays, 80 yards, touchdown.

Three plays, 75 yards, touchdown.

Twelve plays, 74 yards, touchdown.

Six plays, 67 yards, touchdown.

Seven plays, 65 yards, touchdown.

Seven plays, 36 yards, field goal.

Four plays, 38 yards, touchdown.

“Hold that line!” it’s clear, has been replaced by “Hold ‘em to three!”

And this was no cupcake OU was playing. The Cowboys are ranked 14th by the BCS, higher than any ACC team. After a while, though, a touchdown isn’t quite so thrilling - and after the seventh you begin to nod off … or at least, I do. How many swing passes, quick slants and draw plays out of the shotgun formation can anyone stand?

On the West Coast, meanwhile, Oregon State was trying to lock up a Rose Bowl berth at Oregon. It lost 65-38. The week before, Texas Tech was closing in on an undefeated season and first-ever appearance in the Big 12 championship game. It lost 65-21 at Oklahoma. I’m struck dumb by the magnitude of these defeats - and by the near-total absence of defense on the part of the Beavers and Red Raiders. Is it all just about outscoring the other guy now?

I’m not some old codger who yearns for the days of the single wing. I’ve studied my history, though, and I know a few things. I know, for instance, that football was revolutionized in the ‘30s and ‘40s, ushered into the modern of age, largely because of a handful of quarterbacks who came out of Texas.

There was Sammy Baugh from Sweetwater and Davey O’Brien from Dallas, both of whom went to TCU. Then you had Cecil Isbell from Houston (and Purdue), Tommy Thompson from Fort Worth (and Tulsa) and Bobby Layne, another Dallas kid, who took his act to Austin.

Four of them went on to win NFL championships. The other, O’Brien, dazzled D.C. fans in 1940 by completing 33 of 60 passes in the regular-season finale against the Redskins. Davey, shorter than Doug Flutie at 5-foot-7, was way ahead of his time.

But their game wasn’t today’s game. Yes, they threw the ball more than the predecessors, but football didn’t stop being football. The afternoon Davey threw his 60 passes for 316 yards, his Eagles team scored exactly six points. In the current college game, 60 passes might get you 60 points.

At the other end of the spectrum nowadays is Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson, late of Navy. While others are winging the ball around, Johnson’s Yellow Jackets are going 9-3 - and earning a No. 15 BCS ranking - by rushing for 3,388 yards and passing for 1,140 with their retro option attack. The sheer, primitive beauty of it.

Hard to imagine many coaches following Johnson’s lead. The Wishbone Era is gone, and it ain’t coming back. But it’s good to know someone is still slugging it out in the trenches, still gaining yards the hard way, the football way.

Why is the spread offense so hard to slow down? Here’s my theory: When you put five receivers on the field, you do it knowing there are probably only three half-decent cornerbacks on the other team to cover them. The others in the secondary were likely shifted over from the offense when they couldn’t win a starting job - and are still steamed about it.

So what Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Graham Harrell, Chase Daniel and all the rest are doing when they drop back is looking for a receiver being covered by a guy who wishes he were playing offense. That’s how you score 60 points in college football. And I use the term “football” loosely.

Fortunately, not every coach has taken leave of his senses. Nick Saban, trained in the pro game, has a nicely balanced team at Alabama; it can run, pass and play defense. The same goes for Pete Carroll, another NFL refugee, at Southern Cal and Urban Meyer at Florida. The BCS title game, then, is shaping up as a battle between Football As We’ve Come To Know It and the Big 12’s latest Death Star.

Memo to Nick and Urban: Be sure to activate your deflector shield.

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