In case you missed it this past Sunday, the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys played one of the most mesmerizing games of the 2013 NFL season. It featured Tony Romo feverishly pursuing the single-game passing record of 554 yards only to fall 48 yards short, and Peyton Manning—the surefire Hall of Famer—posting statistics that top even his magical 2004 season. The final score was 51-48.
Needless to say, there was no defense. The Broncos historically have had a great offense. Denver has scored more points in its first five games than any other team, and even when adjusted for league average scoring, the Broncos’ offense reigns supreme. Still, part of why the Broncos and Cowboys combined for over 1,000 yards of total offense is because of rule changes to increase player safety. Defenders cannot hit receivers over the middle with the same viciousness often glorified on NFL Films. Not to mention that defenders are already forbidden from contacting opposing receivers five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
The result—and none of what I’ve written is earth-shattering by any means—is that the running game is no longer the crutch of offenses everywhere. Top teams, both in the NFL and college, throw the football to score points and run the football to end the game.
Well, except Columbia. The Lions have tried to use a pass-first philosophy, but have averaged just 9.3 points per game this season. After Brett Nottingham—the Stanford transfer who was supposed to be the program’s savior—was lost to a season-ending wrist injury, Columbia simply hasn’t had a viable option under center. Sophomore Trevor McDonagh struggled mightily in relief of Nottingham. His season stats in two-plus games of action: 24-60 for 202 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
Enter first-year Kelly Hilinski. In his first collegiate game, the 6-foot-6 Hilinski was not horrible. His 70-yard touchdown to Scooter Hollis provided the Lions with their only points in the 53-7 debacle last Saturday against Princeton. Hilinski finished the day 10-21 for 132 yards with that long touchdown to Hollis and one interception. Again, Hilinski was not horrible—he just wasn’t great either.
Amid the quarterback carousel, it would seem obvious that opposing defensive coordinators would look to stop running back Marcorus Garrett first. But the senior and 2012 All-Ivy selection has been terrific. Garrett has gained 262 yards with a robust 6.6 yards per carry and three runs over 20 yards this season.
Garrett’s production, then, begs the question: Why not give him the football a lot more? Maybe not every single play, but what about 40 carries per game? Or even 30? Garrett has averaged just 13 per game this season. Consider that the statistic yards per attempt (YPA) is considered the easiest number to measure a quarterback’s efficiency. The best quarterbacks have YPAs close to 10, and the average YPA is approximately seven. Garrett, comparatively speaking, averages 6.6 yards per carry (or attempt, in this analogy). He would rank among the bottom third of college quarterbacks—a massive improvement over McDonagh’s YPA of 3.4 and even a slight improvement over Hilinski’s small-sample YPA of 6.3. We know from economics that when selecting the best combination of passing and running plays, the marginal utility (i.e., yards per attempt) should be the same for both. As long as running plays keep generating more yards than passing plays, Columbia should be giving the ball to Garrett.
Even when Columbia is losing, Garrett needs to be the focal point of the offense. Although large deficits usually force offenses to exclusively throw the football—passing the ball helps keep time on the clock—the Light Blue isn’t exactly in a position to be picky. The Lions simply gain more yards, on average, running than throwing. Moreover, less time on the clock means less time for the opponent to run up the score, and more time for Columbia’s overworked defense to rest.
Sure, McDonagh and Hilinski are both underclassmen with a lot of time to develop. They could handle the reins of the offense eventually. If the Lions want to put in some halfway respectable performances this season, though, Garrett has to be the engine of this offense.