College football has experienced a major shift in the last 10 years as quarterbacks and spread offenses have taken over the game. Pace of play is at an all-time high, and quarterbacks in many offenses around the country now throw over 50 passes per game. But in the middle of White County, Arkansas, Harding University’s football team continues to buck the trend.
Ask any student on campus to describe the Bisons offense and the words boring, dull and simple are sure to come up. The team lacks the glamour and explosiveness of an offense like Oklahoma State University. It does not have an all-star like University of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray. It does not even have a recognizable passing game.
Over a stretch of three games at the end of this past season, Harding threw a total of one pass, less than one-twentieth of the national average. In an evolving college football landscape, can an offense as simple and boring as Harding’s succeed?
When former Harding Head Football Coach Ronnie Huckeba retired at the 2016 season’s end, many students wondered whether his triple-option offense would retire with him. Would Harding finally move into the 21st century of college football?
In the first three games of the 2017 season, the Bisons did not do anything to settle down the naysayers. In those games, Harding went 0-3, failing to score more than 27 points. It was time for a change. Everyone knew it was time for Harding to throw the ball.
Maybe there is a reason fans are not walking the sidelines with the clipboard every week.
In week four, against Oklahoma Baptist University, the Bisons again struggled to move the ball in the first half, and it looked like Head Coach Paul Simmons was going to have to wait even longer for his first win. Then, everything changed.
Harding marched 70 yards — all on the ground — on its first possession of the third quarter. The triple option worked and jump-started a 31-point second half. That half would be the turning point of the season.
It may not be the most glamorous display, but Harding’s offense possesses something lacking in the modern game: grit. As teams spread the field, Harding has continued to run the same offense it has for years, and it is paying major dividends.
After that game against Oklahoma Baptist University, Harding would go on to have the second-ranked rushing offense in the country. Beyond that, Harding averaged 35 minutes of possession per game, meaning their defense had plenty of time to rest and become a top-30 group on their own.
Come playoff time, the triple option pays further dividends. As teams move further into the world of spread offenses and 60-point games, Harding’s offense stands out, and opponents cannot adequately prepare for such a different style of play.
The result: Harding has made it to the NCAA Division II Playoff Quarterfinals for two consecutive seasons under two different coaches, all while running the triple option. So, while fans may be frustrated with the Bisons lack of offensive creativity, they are not frustrated with the Bisons’ success. Harding may be stuck in the 20th century on offense, but it is hard to argue that they have a better option.