By Darl and Donald DeVault
Oklahoma’s football program conquered all of major-college ball last season, its continuing evolutionary emphasis on running far more plays than their opponents, allowing them to dictate the pace and tempo of the contest. This up-tempo, hard charging offensive philosophy of not huddling to call the plays is a logical extension of OU’s football innovations stretching back to coaching legend Bud Wilkinson’s adoption of a hurry-up offense in the mid-1950s.
How about this – the 2010 Sooners ran 1,131 plays leading up to this year’s BCS Fiesta Bowl appearance, while the next highest major-college team, Troy University, ran 997 in their 13 games.
This is a whopping 13.4 percent offensive increase from all others, an average 87 plays per game in a world where 65-70 offensive plays per game is the norm. Sooners’ head coach Bob Stoops and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson stepped up the offensive pace going into the 2008 season. It was an instant hit with then-quarterback Sam Bradford marching the team to an incredible first-strike capability. That year, OU’s go-go offense had a devastating effect on uninitiated teams.
OU’s first-strike capability and its arsenal of weapons set it apart from even the most successful programs in 2008. With eventual Heisman Trophy winner Bradford, the most efficient passer in college football, throwing strikes to his receivers, the Sooners scored on their first drives in every regular season game except two. In those two games, it took the second drive to put points on the board. The Sooners’ first strike was so pervasive, they outscored opponents 225-30 in the first quarter before the national title game that season, and college coaching noticed. Wilson won the Frank Broyles Award in 2008 as the nation’s top assistant coach.
That season, OU notched a school-record 97 TDs, surpassing the 80 scored the previous season. They amassed 702 points by averaging 54 points a game, the most in modern college history. The Sooners were highly efficient as they scored on 95 percent of their trips into the Red Zone (20-yard line to goal line).
Bud would have been proud.
Wilkinson, who died in 1994 at 77, shared his reasoning for the fastest offensive pace possible on the gridiron in a 1983 interview for a book about the Orange Bowl: “There’s no reason in my view to let defenses go into a huddle and call a play against you. The so-called ‘hurry-up’ offense that everybody does in the last two minutes – there’s no reason not to do that for 60 minutes. You’ve got to be in better shape – that’s why we won anyway; we were in better shape than our opponents.”
Wilkinson is a Sooner coaching legend for elevating OU to national prominence during his era (1947-1963) with 13-straight conference championships. OU won three national titles while winning six of the eight bowl games in which they played during his 17 seasons at the helm.
He continued with one of his pre-season speeches: “Going into the season, we’re not any better than they are physically, and we’re not smarter than they are, and we’re not any tougher than they are, but maybe we are even with them in these things. Assuming that, how are we going to win? If it’s that even, they’ve got the ball 30 minutes and we’ve got it 30 minutes. If we run 15 more plays in our 30 minutes than they can snap the ball in their 30, the yards made on those 15 plays will win for us.”
Wilkinson had some help in speeding up play in what he termed a “fast break” in the mid-1950s when former Sooner Tommy McDonald brought his track-star speed and extreme competitiveness to OU’s backfield as a running back, receiver and halfback passer.
In 1955 and 1956, McDonald was the top rusher on America’s best rushing team. In ‘55, he led in passing and scoring to become the first Sooner to score a TD in every game of a season, as OU led the nation in scoring with 36.5 points per game. He led OU in receiving in ’56. He averaged kick-off returns of 25 yards and punt returns of 15.8 yards. He is the only OU player to lead the Sooners for a season in all four offensive categories, all without wearing a facemask.
According to Wilkinson, McDonald was OU’s most dynamic player. They had an exceptional backfield, exceptional line, and they could all play defense; he considered them great athletes for that particular era.
Only four teams scored on OU in 1955. That 1955 team still owns the OU defensive record for the least passing yardage given up in a season, with 555 yards.
On his way to winning every game in which he played at OU, McDonald says he also liked to play defensive halfback for the Sooners.
Wilkinson explained that Tommy’s leadership got that ’55 team back to the huddle the minute the whistle blew. Saying they went without a huddle was a misnomer. They huddled every play, called the play in the huddle, but didn’t stay huddled for long. Once a team broke the huddle, most snapped the ball fairly rapidly. The difference in the timing came with the speed in which they returned to the huddle after the ball was whistled dead.
Returning to the present and OU’s truly no-huddle offense, former OU Maxwell Award winner McDonald says he would like to play for the Sooners now. “OU must have been in pretty good shape this last season for all those extra plays, and I would feed on that tempo. That increase means more carries, more catches and more chances for us to get in the end zone. I would be looking forward to every game with great anticipation. Back then, Bud Wilkinson was an inspiration to me; I’m just glad I got a scholarship to OU,” McDonald said recently from his home in King of Prussia, Penn.
McDonald, 78, lives near Philadelphia, where he played for the Eagles during his heyday in the NFL, earning a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a league-best wide receiver. McDonald also said he believes, as small as he was, he was only properly evaluated by NFL scouts because of his play on OU’s two national championship teams (‘55 and ‘56) during Wilkinson’s historic 47-game winning streak.
Today, consensus All-American wide receiver Ryan Broyles obviously thrives in the extra-snap environment at OU, recently opting to return for his senior season. He caught 13 passes for 170 yards against UConn in OU’s 48-20 Fiesta Bowl victory last month. The extra plays last season allowed Broyles to set team records for catches (131) and yards (1,622) to add to his career yardage mark of 3,429.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has left OU to be the head coach at Indiana, but is quick to compliment his athletes for the Sooners’ success. “It’s just the mechanics of calling plays. It’s not necessarily that you’re doing a different offense,” Wilson said. “Going no-huddle is nice, but you’d better be able to block and take care of the ball and be smart. There’s a fine balance there.”
The Sooners used that fine balance to propel themselves into new college football territory in 2010 and again, this time under Stoops, brightly polish their long legacy of coaching innovations.