Football: Pack’s passing game giving way to the run
Colin Kaepernick insists that he remembers how to throw a forward pass.
“We know we probably have to throw the ball this game to win,” said the Nevada quarterback as the Wolf Pack prepared for its trip north to meet the undefeated (11-0) Boise State Broncos on Friday night (7:05 p.m., ESPN2). “It just that the last few weeks we haven’t had to throw it. So we haven’t.”
The Wolf Pack offense is turning back the clock and reminding us all of the leather helmet, grind-it-out, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust days of college football. With the electric, high-tech, digital, high definition Wolf Pack running attack, though, it’s more like eight-yards-and-a-cloud-of-Field-Turf followed by an end zone celebration.
“Their offensive numbers are amazing,” Boise State head coach Chris Petersen said. “If you make a mistake on them, they make you pay in a hurry.”
But what has happened to the Wolf Pack’s vanishing passing attack? The Pack has attempted just 37 passes combined over its last three blowout victories over San Jose State, Fresno State and New Mexico State.
The Pack rushing attack has been one of the best in NCAA history this year. The Pack, which has already set a school record with 4,105 rushing yards this year, leads the nation in rushing at 373.2 yards a game. They have topped 500 rushing yards in a game three times.
The numbers the Pack has put up this year on the ground are mind-boggling. Vai Taua (1,185 yards), Kaepernick (1,129) and Luke Lippincott (1,028) are the first three teammates to rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season in NCAA history. Kaepernick (8.6 yards a carry), Taua (8.0) and Lippincott (7.7) are also the top three rushers in the nation (among Football Bowl Subdivision schools) in average per carry.
“We want to be balanced (equal amount of passing and rushing plays) but, and you’re right, we haven’t been balanced lately,” said Pack head coach Chris Ault, who used to be known in the 1990s as Air Ault. “But when you run the ball like we have been, you’re not going to be balanced.”
You are going to run wild. That’s why Boise State’s Petersen, whose quarterback (Kellen Moore) leads the nation in passing, doesn’t blame the Wolf Pack at all for making its passing attack an afterthought in recent weeks.
“If anybody can run the ball for 500 yards, I think they’d do it, us included,” Petersen said. “When you run the ball like that, it changes everything.”
It certainly has changed the Wolf Pack offense.
Last year, for example, the Pack ran the ball 593 times and attempted 418 passes. That’s one pass for every 1.42 rushes. This year the ratio is one pass for every 2.19 rushes. The Pack has run the ball more than twice (529-242) as many times as it has thrown it.
The difference between running and passing has been even more exaggerated over the last three games. The Pack passing attack over its last three games has resembled the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, peeking its head above ground only briefly before disappearing for another six weeks of winter. Against San Jose State, Fresno State and New Mexico State, the Pack ran the ball 170 times and threw it just 37 times.
And you can’t argue with the success.
Those 170 carries have resulted in an unbelievable 1,552 yards (9.13 per carry) and 22 touchdowns. The 37 passing attempts have resulted in 263 yards (7.10 per attempt) and just three touchdowns.
The Pack also relies on its ground game at the most crucial times. Over the past three games, the Pack has converted a staggering 74 percent (25-of-34) of its third-down plays. Of those 34 plays, the Pack has elected to run 21 times and pass just 13 times. And, of those 21 third-down runs, 18 picked up a first down, an 86 percent success rate. Just six of the 13 third-down passes (46 percent) picked up a first down.
And it’s not like all of the third-down runs were on 3rd-and-2 or 3rd-and-1.
The Pack has been faced with 24 situations of 3rd-and-4 or longer over the past three games and has elected to run the ball 13 times. Those 13 rushing attempts resulted in nine first downs (69 percent). They passed the ball on 3rd-and-4 or longer 11 times and picked up the first down six times (55 percent).
“We still have been efficient when we’ve thrown the ball,” Kaepernick said.
No question. But the running game has been crazy good.
“They are getting better and better,” Petersen said. “Right now they are in a groove and playing at a higher level than anybody else. Once they got it going this year nobody has been able to stop them.”
Don’t forget that this is the same program that once had its quarterback average 44.5 passes a game for an entire season (Chris Vargas in 1993 for coach Jeff Horton). Vargas also once threw 75 passes in a game in 1992 when Ault was head coach.
Mike Maxwell averaged 40.6 passes a game in 1994 for Ault, David Neill averaged 38.5 in 1999 for Ault’s protege Jeff Tisdel, Zack Threadgill averaged 37.5 passes a game in 2002 for coach Chris Tormey and Maxwell averaged 34.1 in 1995, again for Ault. Ault even had a wet-behind-the-ears freshman, Fred Gatlin, fire up 40 or more passes in a game twice in 1989.
“We are much further ahead in the running game than I thought we would be at this point,” Ault said.
In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“Our offensive line and our running backs are playing so well lately so we’ve just kept giving them the ball,” said Kaepernick, explaining the Pack’s recent run-first (and second and third) mentality.
Kaepernick, ever the team player, has been more than happy to keep the ball on the ground.
“For me, I don’t care what plays we run as long as we win,” Kaepernick said with a big smile. “I’ll hand the ball off on every play as long as we win.”