This story is part of the KU Edition, a special section that runs in the Lawrence Journal-World.
My first college football game. Our seats were right behind the Syracuse University bench, close enough to hear the banging and the growling. My father didn’t like the seats. He wanted a higher vantage point or maybe he just thought we were too young to smell so much blood.
Maybe it was 1966, maybe 1967. Archbold Stadium in Syracuse, N.Y. World War II hero Ben Schwartzwalder coached SU and his offense largely consisted of handing the ball to Floyd Little and watching him slither off tackle, then handing it twice in a row. The chains kept moving. As the game progressed, Larry Csonka’s uniform grew muddier, his growls and the groans of those attempting to tackle him amplified.
This, I thought, was football. Interesting enough to watch, but not exactly thrilling. Then the renegade AFL came along and lit up the air with long passes launched by exciting talents such as John Hadl and Joe Namath, Len Dawson and Daryle Lamonica.
Now that was a blast, such entertaining football that when NBC left Namath’s New York Jets and Lamonica’s Oakland Raiders for Heidi, coast-to-coast outrage gripped the nation. (I joined my brothers and fathers, feigning outrage, but secretly wishing I could meet the real-life Heidi, Jennifer Edwards, who by the way has aged even better than football.)
As our father stayed true to the staid NFL and enjoyed watching Dave Osborne run it up the gut, my brothers and I couldn’t get enough of Hadl to Lance Allworth, Namath to Don Maynard, Lamonica to Fred Biletnikoff or George Blanda to Warren Wells.
Decades later, college football offenses put defenses in retreat with spread offenses, such as the one directed at Kansas University by Todd Reesing. Exciting stuff.
Times change. And sometimes they change back. The worst thing this Kansas football team could do is lead with the pass and abandon the run. It needs to pound the rock, pound the rock, pound the rock, keep the chains and the clock moving. The shorter the game, the better the chance of an upset. Since Kansas is likely to be the underdog in 10 of its 12 games, shorter is better.
Plus, most Big 12 defenses are built to stop spread offenses because when the players now starting were recruited out of high school, the spread was all the rage. The spread still has a strong presence, but the defenses have adjusted and slowly teams are shifting away from it.
KU, badly in need of an offensive identity and not armed with the personnel to use a past-first approach to do so, needs to lead the switch, not follow.
A run-first approach didn’t die, it’s just been on hiatus.
“The great thing about football, pretty much it’s been done before,” KU offensive line coach J.B. Grimes said. “You always hear guys talk about gurus. You know, ‘He’s an offensive guru.’ The greatest guru thing there ever was was when Knute Rockne threw that football. All the sudden, everybody was, ‘What was that?’ It’s all been done.”
Grimes said he thinks pressure to put fans in the stands has played a part in the pass becoming so prominent, but certain things about the game never will change.
“There are a couple of things you’ve got to do,” Grimes said. “You’ve got to stop the run. You’ve got to run the football and you’ve got to kick the ball well too. And that’s been the formula for winning football games for a long time.”
It looks now as if Kansas will be favored in two of its 12 games on the schedule. So shorten the games, see if the defense can force more turnovers than the offense commits and take advantage of what appears to be a deep pool of running backs.
As a freshman, James Sims of Irving, Texas, led the team in rushing (742 yards), rushing touchdowns (nine) and had a higher yards-per-carry average (4.4) than any other running back on the roster. He lacks break-away speed, but compensated for that with impressive vision and deceptive power.
Incoming freshmen Darrian Miller of Blue Springs, Mo., and Anthony Pierson of East St. Louis, Ill., bring different possibilities. The slight Pierson, listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, is the team’s fastest back. Miller, 5-10, 181 seems bigger than Pierson, is faster running away from a defense than on the stopwatch, and made quite an impression when participating in spring football.
“We did not know what we had,” Grimes said. “We did not know who our running back is going into camp.”
Senior Angus Quigley had the job the first week, but quickly was beaten out by Sims, who didn’t carry the ball in the season-open 6-3 shocker of a loss in Turner Gill’s Kansas debut.
Now, if doubt exists it’s for good reasons.
“To me, I don’t know if we’ve got just one,” Grimes said. “I don’t know. To me, Sims is the guy because he’s done it. But I’ll tell you this, that Miller kid, he sees things awfully well. I like him. Those guys have a chance to make my guys look awfully good. That’s what I’m looking for. Give me an average offensive line and a great back and we’ll move the ball.”
Overwhelmed by how much more complicated college football schemes are than small-high school football in Missouri during his red-shirt season, Brandon Bourbon was injured much of the spring. He brings both size and speed.
Shortly after taking the job, Gill said he planned to run the ball on 60 percent of the plays from scrimmage. It didn’t turn out that way in Gill’s first season. Running backs Sims, Quigley, D.J. Beshears (sometimes a receiver) and Deshaun Sands combined for 349 carries. Quarterbacks Jordan Webb, Quinn Mecham and Kale Pick combined to throw 352 passes.
“I think 60-40 is a good run-pass ratio,” Grimes said. “You know what though, sometimes circumstances dictate that you have to get out of that. You get down and you have to change.”
Such as during the first three conference games, when the Jayhawks were outscored 159-24 in losses to Baylor, Kansas State and Texas A&M, the latter two blowouts coming at home.
“The month of October was tough,” Grimes said. “The month of September, we didn’t know what we had. The month of October was a disaster. The month of November, we started getting a little more competitive. And if you notice, we started running the ball more in November. Sims had finally come around.”
Establishing the run requires a stubbornness, sticking with the run even if it means sending the punter out a few times until the opposing defense gets battle-weary. It brings out the toughness in offensive linemen because it puts them on the offensive, as opposed to pass-blocking, which puts them in a defensive mode. That’s why linemen love to play for run-first teams.
“If I go over on the sideline during a heated contest and one of my offensive linemen turns around to me and says, ‘Coach, we need to throw the ball more,’ he’s done. He’s not going back in the game,” Grimes said. “It’s a prideful deal. You take great pride in running the football.”
That’s not where the teaching ends, but it’s where any team that wants to carve out an identity as a tough one should start.
“I think we owe to these guys to teach ’em to run-block and have the artistry of pass-blocking,” Grimes said. “There’s a place for that and you’re not doing a good job of coaching if you’re not doing that. But when you cut an offensive lineman open, he wants to line up mano a mano and wants to knock his man off the ball. It’s not an easy thing to do. Running the football is not an easy thing to do. You have to have patience.”
This needs to be the season Kansas commits to the run. It’s not as if offensive coordinator Chuck Long hasn’t been in charge of a program that made just such a transition with huge success. While at OU, Long’s sluggish running game produced 2,063 rushing yards on 3.9 yards per carry in 2003 and in 2004 improved to 2,739 yards with an average gain of 4.9 yards. OK, so Adrian Peterson, first-team All-American as a freshman, was largely responsible for that and KU doesn’t have an Adrian Peterson. But it does have a talented stable of running backs and a bruising fullback in Lititz native Nick Sizemore, a transfer from Buffalo.
It’s time to put those guys and the massive men up front to work, three and four yards at a time.
Give me Csonka up the middle and Little off tackle 40-some years later.