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Big Ten Quarterbacks Run Wild

Denard Robinson

Denard Robinson (Photo Credit: Getty Images, By: Gregory Shamus)

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(WSCR)Trends in college football change as often as the polls. The most recent trend, that can be seen across the college football landscape, is the running quarterback’s return to prominence. Many of these quarterbacks, Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez among others, have yet to develop prolific passing games.When these young running quarterbacks develop passing attacks, much like Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor did, the college game could change once again.

Purdue’s season appeared to be hanging by a thread when quarterback Robert Marve went down with a severe knee injury a month ago.

Coach Danny Hope knew redshirt freshman Rob Henry wasn’t ready to sling the ball around like former Boilermakers Drew Brees or Kyle Orton, but he knew his young quarterback was the fastest player on the team. Purdue used a bye week to tweak its spread offense and shift to a run-based approach featuring liberal use of the zone-read option play.

The results have been stunning. Henry rushed for 132 yards in an upset win at Northwestern, then ran for three touchdowns in a victory over Minnesota. Purdue is one of three unbeaten teams in conference play heading into Saturday’s game at No. 11 Ohio State.

Problem solved.

Purdue has joined a growing number of teams using mobile quarterbacks out of the spread with a significant dose of that zone-read option. Michigan’s Robinson and Nebraska’s Martinez quickly went from fighting for starting jobs to Heisman Trophy contenders doing it. Auburn’s offense has been nearly unstoppable with quarterback Cam Newton running a similar system.

“It seems like every time you turn the channel, there’s a dual-threat quarterback that can throw and pass and do all this and that,” said Pryor, who has passed for 1,505 yards and rushed for 410 this season. “I think in college football, that’s one thing that’s pretty hard to stop. It cuts out a lot of defenses that you can play against a quarterback.”

Programs like Texas, Alabama, Nebraska and Oklahoma used mobile quarterbacks to fuel past national championship campaigns. While schools such as Georgia Tech, Army, Navy and Air Force still use old-school option systems, it’s the zone-read option out of the spread that has quarterbacks putting up video game-like numbers and defenses across the nation scrambling for answers.

Four of the nation’s top 18 rushers in the Football Bowl Subdivision – Robinson, Martinez, Newton and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick – are quarterbacks.

Robinson leads the nation with 1,096 yards rushing in seven games. To put that in perspective, Nebraska’s Eric Crouch ran for 1,115 yards overall on his way to the Heisman Trophy in 2001. Robinson already has run for more yards this season than Vince Young, Tim Tebow, Michael Vick and Tommie Frazier gained in any season during their storied careers and he’s closing in on the single-season record for yards rushing in a season by a quarterback (Air Force’s Beau Morgan had 1,494 yards in 11 games in 1996).

But it’s not just the big-name quarterbacks who are gouging defenses with their legs.

According to STATS LLC, quarterbacks have accounted for 15 percent of all rushing yardage in the FBS this season. That’s the highest total in the past 15 years. As recently as 2006, quarterbacks accounted for just 8.9 percent of the yards rushing. In 1996, that total was just 5.3 percent.

Quarterbacks have rushed for more than 18,700 yards this season – already more than in any entire season between 1996 and 2000. In all, 16 quarterbacks rank in the top 100 nationally in net rushing yardage. If that holds up, it will by far be the highest total of the past 10 years.

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, considered a guru of the run-based spread, isn’t surprised that the concept has grown because coaches have been picking his brain for years.

“Maybe five or six years ago, we had a whole bunch of people visit us when I was at West Virginia,” he said. “Now there are so many other people that do it or do some version of it.”

The zone read is simply the latest wrinkle of the spread that defenses have struggled to catch up with.

“That’s been in existence for a long time now, and I think what’s happened is it’s grown,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “I think, like anything that catches on, people try to look at it and say, ‘Hey, I can take it to the next level on this and do the next thing.'”

The approach is similar to the veer option of yesteryear, but it is more difficult to defend because the spread forces players to defend more space.

“Defenses today are geared to load the box, and (the zone read) equals out the number a defense can play because the quarterback is involved in the run game,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. “So now the numbers are even. Instead of it being 10 on 11, it’s now 11 on 11, and you make the defense defend the entire field.”

There are numerous variations of the play. Sometimes, a receiver will go in motion toward the quarterback before the snap. Other times, the running back or backs line up beside the quarterback. Nevada lines its quarterback up in a sort of half-shotgun formation, the now well-known pistol.

Because the quarterback doesn’t always read the same player, defenses often struggle with assignments.

“If you really study it, there’s more than one way to run it,” Chizik said. “When you’re running it a few different ways – when maybe to the naked eye it’s the same way, but it’s different – for a defense, that’s where it gets complicated. And we’ll run it several different ways.”

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer has had success using the zone read with quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

“You hand it off to a dive guy like David Wilson, and it doesn’t take him long to go north and south, so I think there’s good stuff there,” Beamer said. “When your first option is fast, your second option is fast and your third option is fast, I think you’ve got something going.”

What seems like a new phenomenon goes back more than a decade. Rodriguez began receiving attention for his success with the spread as an assistant coach at Tulane. With the mobile Shaun King at quarterback, the Green Wave went 12-0 in 1998. Rodriguez had similar successes at Clemson and West Virginia.

Hope feels he and offensive coordinator Gary Nord are just starting to discover what Purdue can do with its running game, and in particular, the zone read with Henry.

“It is something that we can also evolve with,” Hope said. “It can grow and become larger, and we can add wrinkles to it and get wrinkles out of it. We will get better at it and add to it.”

Copyright 2010 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press contributed to this article. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.