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Back to the Future: The 1956 Oklahoma Sooners

Option tenets + extreme talent = unstoppable, in both the 1950s and 2010s.

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NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When we looked at ‘45 Army last week, we found the Cadets running the basic T formation that was prevalent all throughout football in that era. With three backs in the backfield, you could run your gamut of misdirection plays, “student body” type sweeps, and a full trapping game from your offensive line. It would seem that most teams ran a version of this.

World War II gave us a dominant Army squad that would win 27 games without a loss in three seasons, it also gave us the tactic that would change football forever: the option.

In the early 40s, the Navy commissioned Pre-Flight schools at 4 universities. Georgia, North Carolina, Saint Mary’s, and Iowa. Each Pre-Flight school was able to field a football team separate from the university. During the Pre-Flight years of 1942-44, the Iowa Hawkeyes went a combined 8-17-1 while the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks went 26-5. Coaching legends Bernie Biermann, Don Faurot, and Jack Meagher passed through Iowa Pre-Flight as its head coaches.

The story of the 1956 Oklahoma Sooners starts with the 1943 Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks, head coach Don Faurot, and an assistant coach named Bud Wilkinson. Don taught Bud an offense with tenets that still pervade college football at every level.

From Iowa Pre-Flight, Bud Wilkinson spent a few years at sea as a hangar deck officer before returning stateside to coach at Oklahoma, first as Jim Tatum’s assistant, then as head coach in 1947. The Sooners dominated from the moment he arrived in Norman, and by the 1956, the offense that he learned from Don Faurot in Iowa City was clicking on all cylinders.

With the basic T formation, the linemen were in tight splits. In Faurot’s new Split T, the linemen opened their splits up and forced the defense to widen out with them. This is exactly what Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech do to this day. Just like the Split T, Johnson’s offense puts three backs in the backfield — albeit through a slightly different alignment — and widens the gaps of their offensive line to create ready-made creases in the defense.

The Split T was also the first offense to run the option. Faurot claims the idea for reading a defender came from his days in basketball running 2-on-1 fast breaks. Get a defender to commit to you and then pass the ball off to a teammate for the layup.

The Sooners’ 1956 showdown with Missouri, coached by who else but Faurot, gives us a glimpse into some how they ran this “primitive” option.

For starters, they would either call the dive play or call the option play. The dive would hit quick. With the option, the quarterback would sprint to the unblocked defender and then read him for the pitch.

Here’s the dive for touchdown. You can kinda see that there’s an unblocked defender at the end of the line but, again, I don’t think there was any read on the dive play.

The option is called and the QB keeps. QBs keeping on the option and then juking a man out of their shoes has been going on for 60 years apparently.

Finally the pitch phase of the option with a lead blocker. Load option?

Of course, with all these types of offenses, you’re going to have a lot of misdirection. Follow the pulling guard and you’ll find the ball after all the backfield action.

And if you are going to run that backfield action, then you better have a play action off the same look.

Here’s that weird play that we also saw Army do. I just don’t understand why this isn’t a QB sweep with the third back leading for him. Seems so complicated for nothing.

Then show that lead toss play but reverse it back only to throw a wheel route. Dirty stuff. Great block by the quarterback.

Saw this shift a couple times. Overload one side and then just run the new QB to that side. If that’s not the modern “wildcat,” I don’t know what is.

The throwback to the tight end who crosses the formation ALWAYS WORKS. You see this type of play on the goalline often in today’s game.

“The best way to run play action is to pull a guard.”

This is the progression of the option look, but then the back gets nervous and tries to throw it back to the QB ... LOL.

Here’s some sort of roll out pass but then the QB gets in trouble so he pitches to his supposed lead blocker who then tries to throw it to the actual primary receiver on the play. Again, LOL.

The more things change the more they stay the same amirite folks.

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about these offenses is how they have a progression off every look they showed. It feels like some modern offensive coordinators have forgotten this basic tenet of offense.

“An ounce of disguise is worth a pound in scheme.”