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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Once pass-happy Big 12 ready to run again

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The Big 12 is ready to run again.

The pass-happy league that’s been known in recent years for producing Heisman Trophy finalists at quarterback is now home to the nation’s top three rushers.

Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter, Kansas State’s Daniel Thomas and Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray pulled off a rare trifecta in the opening weekend of the season, becoming only the fifth trio in conference history to rush for 200 yards apiece on the same day.

That hadn’t happened in a dozen years in a conference that has lately become so passionate about passing. In fact, there had been only three 200-yard rushing performances total over the past two years — much less in the same day.

Texas’ Ricky Williams, Oklahoma’s De’Mond Parker and Kansas’ David Winbush were the last Big 12 trio of 200-yard rushers, back on Oct. 24, 1998. It also happened three times in 1996, with Texas Tech’s Byron Hanspard, Kansas’ June Henley, Iowa State’s Troy Davis and Nebraska’s Ahman Green among those contributing.

It took until a group of top-notch quarterbacks including 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel and Graham Harrell cycled through the league for it to happen again.

“That’s natural,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “I think you play to your strengths, and when you have guys like that, you play to them.”

And the Big 12’s running resurgence isn’t just the senior trio with the gaudy numbers. Freshman Taylor Martinez had 127 yards in a revival of the running quarterback at Nebraska, and Texas has committed to being more of a run-oriented team although Week 1 didn’t produce any big numbers.

At Oklahoma State, the hiring of new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, a former Mike Leach assistant who created the nation’s top passing offense last season at Houston, created visions of a four-receiver spread.

That all changed this summer when Holgorsen approached offensive line coach Joe Wickline with the idea of testing out a full house backfield. The Cowboys designed a new offensive formation with three running backs to feature Hunter, a third-team All-American in 2008 who missed most of last season with an ankle injury.

Oklahoma, almost exclusively a shotgun team during Bradford’s career, also went with a pistol-based offense to improve on its sagging run production from last season. The Sooners averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last season, their lowest mark since 2001 and the second-lowest in the past 25 years.

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