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Short Passes Are All The Rage In College Football This Year

On its surface, last month’s shootout between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and Texas Tech Red Raiders seemed to offer little insight into the broader trends of where college football is headed. Yes, each side produced more than 30 points and 430 yards of total offense in front of a sellout crowd at Boone Pickens Stadium, with quarterbacks Spencer Sanders and Behren Morton combining for 107 throws. But offensive explosions like this are a dime-a-dozen in the Big 12, particularly when the Cowboys and Red Raiders link up.

What was notable, however, were the types of plays that ignited the offensive fireworks.

In the playoff era, only about 1-in-4 passes have targeted receivers either at or behind the line of scrimmage. This makes intuitive sense; the point is to move the ball down the field, so throwing it backward would seem to be less than optimal. But in that October game, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State each threw the ball zero or fewer yards downfield on more than 57 percent of their passes, both among the highest single-game rates measured since 2014. The Red Raiders attempted 41 passes that traveled no more than 2 yards through the air — the highest such total produced by any team in any game in the playoff era — while the Cowboys attempted 29, tied for the 18th-most. (For context, the average Football Bowl Subdivision team this season has thrown 32 times per game, period, across all distances.)

“It sure was a fun game to watch,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy afterward. “Everyone got their money’s worth.”

This growth in the dump-it-off or swing-it-out offensive approach isn’t unique to high-octane Big 12 offenses, either. Seven different conferences1 this season feature at least one team that has targeted at least 35 percent of its passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. South Carolina and Western Kentucky each exceed 40 percent, which currently puts them on pace for two of the 11 highest single-season marks in the playoff era. Through nine games, the FBS-wide ratio of pass attempts that have fallen either at or behind the line of scrimmage is 25.2 percent rate, the highest on record.2 In turn, the percentage of attempts traveling at least 20 yards downfield (13.9) is tied for the lowest rate on record.

Like their NFL counterparts, college defensive coordinators have drawn up more two-high safety defensive looks this season, which could help explain why short passing is more en vogue. The more likely culprit, however, is the two-seconds-or-less era that has offensive coordinators looking for their QBs to swiftly discard the football. On average, quarterbacks have waited just 2.73 seconds this season before pressure arrives. And if getting the ball out quickly is the goal, it has been met so far. The rate of sacks per dropback has dipped to 5.6 percent, tied for the lowest rate since 2014.

As a result, the average pass attempt this season has traveled just 8.43 yards in the air, the shortest distance of any season in the playoff era and a 3.9 percent dropoff from 2021. The average pass has also been airborne for 1.05 seconds this season, the shortest amount of time it has spent in midair since the stat was introduced in 2020. 

And don’t mistake those figures as representative of a down scoring season. Unlike in the NFL, where scoring has plummeted amidst a barrage of short passes, college offenses are thriving. The average offense is producing 2.25 points per drive this season, the highest clip since at least 2004,3 and there doesn’t appear to be any correlation between the rate of throws that land at or behind the line of scrimmage and offensive efficiency.

There’s arguably no better representative for the rise of the short pass in 2022 than the TCU Horned Frogs. In their first season under coach Sonny Dykes, the Horned Frogs have thrown short on 36.8 percent of passes, up 11.3 percentage points from 2021. This approach has paid dividends for quarterback Max Duggan, a senior who began the season on the bench but has transformed into a Heisman Trophy contender. TCU averages 0.17 expected points added per play on throws that travel 2 or fewer air yards, tied for the 11th-most in the nation. Similarly, USC coach Lincoln Riley has implemented some of the same measures in his first season in Los Angeles. The Trojans have scored 9.8 of their 41.0 total points per game via passes that have traveled 2 or fewer air yards alone, 3 more points than any other team is averaging off of those throws this season — and the most of any Power Five team in the playoff era through seven games.

The horizontal-frozen-rope offense isn’t as visually appealing as the traditional image of a high-arcing rainbow pass downfield, nor will the former likely ever truly supplant the latter. But the short pass has undeniably been a serious staple of offenses across the nation this season. The approach cuts down on turnovers and neutralizes the threat of an increasingly terrifying generation of pass-rushers. So in the college game at least, the most effective route to the end zone is not always the most direct one.

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  1. The Big 12, Big Ten, Conference USA, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC and Sun Belt.

  2. Data available since 2011.

  3. The first year for which data is available.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.


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