Last year, a high school football team from the town of Aledo, Texas (population: 2,896) became the first in history to score more than a thousand points in a season; on their way to a state championship, the Bearcats won a game 91-0, a victory so harsh that an opposing parent actually accused the Aledo coaching staff of bullying.
This is football in the Lone Star State in the modern age: I have no idea if Eric Taylor ran the spread offense at East Dillon before he went off the air, but I imagine in some parallel DirecTV-only universe, he does now.
Offensive football in Texas is the dominant paradigm, so much so that the state’s high schools led the nation in scoring by more than 1.5 points last season. The spread – which is an umbrella term for the multi-varied, Technicolor iterations of an offense that utilizes the width of a football field, and often emphasizes a quick tempo – has trickled downward from colleges like Baylor and Texas A&M and Texas Tech, and it’s become the dominant brand in the state whose culture is still more closely intertwined with football than any other. It’s gotten to the point where coaches have almost no choice but to implement some version of the spread in order to keep pace.
Which leads us to the orgiastic sequence of events last Saturday evening in Waco.
Perhaps you did not witness the whole of the Baylor’s 61-58 win over TCU. I can’t blame you; it lasted more than four hours. Perhaps you only saw the final score, or the box score, which showed two teams that combined for 1,267 yards and 62 first downs and 14 touchdowns, an offensive feast that felt, in the end, a little bit like overindulging at a Sizzler. Perhaps you did not see Baylor climb back from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit as easily as if the Bears were jogging into a summer breeze. Perhaps you did not witness TCU coach Gary Patterson, so wracked by indecision in the final minute as to whether he should: A) Go for it on 4th-and-3 from the Baylor 45 with a little over a minute to play and the game tied 58-58, or B) Punt the ball back to Baylor’s red-hot offense and take his chances on playing for overtime, that he actually called two time-outs to mull it over.
In the end, Patterson’s quarterback, Trevone Boykin, threw an incomplete pass to the sideline on fourth down, and Baylor drove down in the waning seconds and kicked a game-winning field goal. But you can’t blame Patterson for making the decision he did. It was the only choice he really had. You go for it, Patterson has learned, because either you keep up in Texas these days, or you become obsolescent.
Patterson is best known as the inventor of a unique and flexible defensive scheme known as the 4-2-5, which might be the closest anyone has come to devising an antidote (though clearly a flawed one) for the spread. For years, he was such a competent and universally respected coach that his prowess – most notably a 13-0 season in 2010 that ended with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin – single-handedly helped elevate TCU’s athletic program out of the purgatory of the Mountain West Conference and into the Big 12. But the first two seasons of the Horned Frogs’ existence in a power league appeared to expose the weakness of a program that wasn’t in step with demographic changes, both within the state of the Texas and within the Big 12 at large.
In 2012 and 2013 TCU won a total of 11 contests, losing close game after close game because their offense – which, by both Big 12 and Texas football standards, was sluggish and unimaginative – failed to keep pace. (The underlying subtext was that TCU somehow wasn’t “equipped” to be in the Big 12 in the first place.) And so Patterson went out and hired not just one, but two new offensive coordinators, each of whom had extensive experience coaching within the state of Texas (one, Sonny Cumbie, came from Texas Tech, and the other, Doug Meacham, came from Houston), and each of whom was comfortable running the sort of offense that could exert pressure on Big 12 defenses.
And up until the final minutes on Saturday, it worked: They had outgunned Oklahoma the previous week and found an offensive engine in Boykin, a quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback again, who is a consistent threat to run and is steadily improving as a passer. And they appeared to have put it all together on the road against a Baylor team that maxes the cult of the spread offense to its limit – an interception return for a touchdown made it 58-37 TCU with 11:38 to play.
But this is what Baylor does: They score points, unrelentingly, and more prolifically than any other team in America, well over 50 a game. They run the ball effectively, and then they throw play-action bombs downfield once an opponent has given in to the threat of the run. Their quarterback, Bryce Petty, is once again putting up numbers that would seem pornographic on an XBox (he threw six touchdowns Saturday night), and the Bears have improved just enough on defense to make crucial stops when they need to.
That’s not to say there don’t remain legitimate questions about the season-long sustainability of Baylor’s productivity. Last year, the Bears appeared to be coasting toward an undefeated season before they got blown out by Oklahoma State, and two weeks ago, Baylor floundered offensively against in a 28-7 win over a scuffling Texas team. Every offense, even one of the most copious in the history of college football, has underlying vulnerabilities, and it’s possible that Baylor’s style of play will eventually get exposed on a national stage.
As with most American institutions, football tends to run in cycles, and perhaps Saturday edged us closer to maxing the idea of the spread to its limit. Perhaps someday Texas will revert to its roots, to the days when Darrell Royal made his name by building the Longhorns into a conservative defensive powerhouse. But for now, the spread is the thing, and points are a necessity, because, as Saturday once again reinforced, there are never enough touchdowns to be scored in Texas these days.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb