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Shifting Gears For 1985 Season: Wishbone = Wishful Thinking

National and Big Eight recap – 1985

Returning to the national championship spotlight for the first time in ten years, the Sooners from the University of Oklahoma won their 6th national title in 1985, scoring a 25-10 win over previously unbeaten Penn State in the Orange Bowl.

Oklahoma finished the year 11-1, losing only to Miami in an early season match-up. The Sooners led the nation in total defense, led by Lombardi Award winner Tony Casillas and the flamboyant linebacker Brian Bosworth. The offense was led by versatile freshman quarterback Jamelle Holieway. Despite the team’s dominance on the field, however, Casillas was Oklahoma’s only national award winner. The Heisman trophy went to Auburn running back Bo Jackson, while the coach of the year went to the WAC for the third straight year, with Sooner coach Barry Switzer being overlooked in favor of Fisher DeBerry of Air Force.

The Sooners rolled through the Big Eight without much difficulty in the 1985 season.

Oklahoma’s 7-0 record included a 27-7 pasting of Nebraska. For their part, the Cornhuskers finished 9-3 overall, 6-1 in conference. Nebraska once again led the nation in rushing, but a 27-23 setback against Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl dropped the Cornhuskers to 11th in the final poll. The 11th place finish represented Nebraska’s first final ranking out of the top five since 1981, and only the second final ranking out of the top ten in the eight seasons.

While the “Big Two” again were prominent on the national scene, the “Little Six” did enjoy some success.

Oklahoma State and Colorado tied for third place in the conference, with each school posting a 4-3 conference mark. Overall, Colorado was recognized as the most improved team in the nation with a 6.5 game turnaround from its 1-10 1984 campaign.

Offseason news

In the offseason, most college football fans discover other pursuits. Some take the time to get reacquainted with family and friends; others head back to work; while many simply shift gears, becoming fanatics for college basketball or baseball.

For the true college football fanatic, however, there is no offseason.

When the bowl season ends, the recruiting season shifts into high gear. After the February signing of incoming freshmen, analyses must be made of the incoming class. Not only for the fanatic’s team, mind you, but for all of the opponents as well.

Then comes spring practices, with optimism for the future, like that of spring itself, renewed each year.

April brings the NFL draft, when the fanatic, like a proud father, sees the team’s departing stars leave the nest to go off and make their fortunes.

The months of May and June bring about a hibernation period. The fanatic turns to books about the game, even if it means reading about other teams. Once July hits, the days until fall camp opens are spent perusing the magazine racks, snatching up each and every pre-season magazine the same day it hits the stands.

For the non-fanatical “real world”, college football rarely rates attention during the off peak periods.

Coaching changes are made, if at all possible, in December, so as to have a staff in place for recruiting. Only when an athlete is arrested, or some other scandal is unveiled, do the football programs merit the front pages of the sports section.

The University of Colorado had two notable exceptions in the early 1980’s.

The first came in May, 1982, when Chuck Fairbanks abruptly resigned. Colorado had already signed the recruiting Class of 1982, and had already gone through spring practices, and were now left with the unenviable task of finding a new head coach three months before the first kickoff.

The second huge off-season news event came in March 25, 1985, when Coach Bill McCartney announced that the Colorado Buffaloes would be running the wishbone offense in the upcoming 1985 season.

To McCartney, the wishbone offense represented CU’s “offense of the future”.

Wishbone = wishful thinking

The wishbone was very successful offensive formation in college football in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, with the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners being especially adept at the craft. The wishbone calls for three running backs in the backfield. There is the fullback, who is positioned directly behind the quarterback, and two running backs split behind the fullback. On a blackboard, the formation looks like a “Y”, or a “wishbone”, hence the name.

The wishbone formation allows the offensive team to run what is known as the triple option.

When the triple option is run, the quarterback takes the ball from center, and runs either to his right or to his left. Reading the defense, he can: 1) hand the football off to the fullback; 2) continue down the line and run the ball around end himself; or 3) pitch the ball to the tailback, who runs parallel to the line of scrimmage, following the quarterback down the line.

The wishbone can be successful when executed well, as it forces the defense to be very precise in its coverage. Each defender is coached as to their specific task, but it is often difficult for all 11 on the field to execute with the same precision of the offensive eleven. If the defense is undisciplined, the offense can dominate the game.

If the wishbone can be so effective, why doesn’t every program run it?

The problem with the wishbone is that it exposes the quarterback to taking a hit on virtually every play. Additional exposure leads to additional risk of injury. NFL teams invest a great deal of money in their quarterbacks, and do not wish to expose them unnecessarily to harm. As a result, NFL teams do not use the formation.

Why would this matter to college teams? Because the best college teams like to recruit the best players. The best players in high school are already looking past college to the pros. Schools which utilize “pro-set” offenses – ones used by the NFL – are believed to best prepare the college player for the pros. Thus, to recruit the best players, colleges moved away from, not toward, the wishbone offense in the 1980’s.

By the mid-1980’s, most major programs had abandoned the wishbone. The service academies, with few pro prospects amongst their ranks, and generally under-sized in the trenches, utilized the wishbone as a means of leveling the playing field against larger and faster opponents. Most other schools had moved on.

Yet, in 1985, there would be a new team practicing the wishbone:

The University of Colorado.

The reaction to the news was, to be gracious, less than enthusiastic.

“Make-A-Wish Bone” chirped the critics. The pro-style offense used by McCartney’s first three Colorado teams had led to numerous passing records. A host of receivers, including record-setters Jon Embree and Loy Alexander, were back for the 1985 season. The Colorado running game in 1984 had been the worst in all of Division 1-A.

The move seemed a desperate act by a desperate team.

Then again, the Buffs had won only 14 games in the past six years.

What could it hurt?

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