In 1985, the year Bo Jackson cemented his place in college football lore as Heisman Trophy winner, college football looked dramatically different than today.
BYU helped cultivate the seeds that had been planted for today’s pass-happy offensive sets. Cougars quarterback Robbie Bosco would have ranked an impressive eighth attempting as many passes in 2015 as he did in 1985 (511).
Otherwise, the game was still very much run-based. Bo Jackson fell right in the middle of an era when running backs were the rock-stars of the sport, with his Heisman run succeeding Herschel Walker and Marcus Allen, and preceding Barry Sanders.
1985’s national champion, Oklahoma, scored all of seven passing touchdowns the entire campaign — and that was with Troy Aikman on the roster.
It’s remarkable to consider this run-heavy mentality prevailed three-quarters of a century after the forward-pass was still in its infancy.
Seventy-five years prior, college football was still experimenting with the forward-pass as a means of opening up the field of play and making the game safer. Football faced necessary reforms at the behest of spectators, including Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, amid a rash of injuries and deaths in the 1900s.
This new measure, introduced for safety purposes, required plenty of fine-tuning. Sound familiar?
Initial rules required passers to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage before attempting a pass. Passes could not go more than 20 yards, and only two players at a time were eligible.
Walter Camp presided over football in its formative years, drawing the ire of some peers along the way. He was vehemently opposed to safety reforms like the forward pass, which would soften the game beyond recognition.
In his lamentations, however, Camp may have indirectly foreseen the rise of stars like Bo Jackson. He told The New York Times in 1910:
“Practically the new rules will put a premium upon the active and aggressive back,” he said. He also foretold the importance of limiting mileage on a premier back, ergo presenting an early version of the platoon backfield system.
“But it will not do to rely so much upon this as to forget the fact that without the pushing and pulling [of teammates wedging ball-carriers through defenses] a light, aggressive back is going to become exhausted in about half the time he would tire when he had the assistance of others to drag him along and save him from hard falls.”
Camp expressed a legitimate concern that holds up 106 years later: The tackles a running back accumulates adds up. Bigger backs, or those who run a less aggressive style, are less susceptible to wear and tear than the lighter but perhaps more explosive back.
That’s what makes Bo Jackson’s performance so worthy of the plaudits it receives three decades later. Bo had the size to sustain more physical punishment than some other backs, going 6-foot-1 and around 230 pounds.
Auburn didn’t sacrifice speed or shiftiness with his size, however.
In the 75 years between Camp’s concerns and Bo Jackson’s star turn, the forward-pass underwent numerous changes. College football didn’t exactly maintain a stagnant philosophy on passing for seven decades, only to discover the value of the pass with Hal Mumme.
A New York Times report of Notre Dame’s rout of Army in 1913, for example, details UND’s expertise of the pass blowing the game open:
The Westerners flashed the most sensational football that has been seen in the East this year, baffling the Cadets with a style of open play and a perfectly developed forward pass which carried the victors down the field 30 yards at a clip. Football men marveled at this startling display of open football. Bill Roper, former head coach at Princeton, who was one of the officials of the game, said that he had always believed that such playing was possible under the new rules but that he had never seen the forward pass developed to such a state of perfection.
Nevertheless, from Oklahoma’s wishbone formation to Bo Jackson’s breakthrough, the value of old-fashioned, ground-based offense shined through years later. And the sport is seeing a new wave of it ahead of 2016, with running backs like Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Samaje Perine bringing shine back to the position.