Oklahoma high school football: 'New-style' offenses have sparked scoring surge
El Reno coach Chuck Atchison remembers the game like it was yesterday.
“I’ve thought about it every day before this season started,” he said. “It’s just one of those games that sticks with you for a long time.”
Noble coach Greg George felt the same.
“It was just one of those nights,” he said through a chuckle. “The electricity went out on the scoreboard. So there for a little bit, you were just trying to keep [the score] in your head.”
Just over a year ago, Noble and El Reno played one of the most bizarre high school football games of the decade. The teams combined for 18 touchdowns, 17 offensive and one defensive, and 134 points. They didn’t play any overtimes. They did all that in four 12-minute quarters of regulation.
To George’s relief, Noble won 72-62.
But if the game produced anything beyond a winner, it’s this: no lead is safe with the athletes and the style of offenses high school teams have begun running in the last decade. Games with scores in the 30s and 40s have become normal in Oklahoma. Final scores with bigger numbers are not out of the ordinary.
This season alone, there have been games where the winner scored 80- and 90-plus points.
So, what’s it like to be in the middle of one of these new-age games?
No one knows better than Noble and El Reno.
“We didn’t give up more than 21 points in a game last year except for that game,” said Atchison, the El Reno coach. “The bad thing was we were up 41-28 at halftime. ... And within about four minutes in the third quarter, it’s 42-41. The next quarter-in-a half, it was a damn shootout.”
Both offenses recorded over
600 yards of total offense during the Oct. 4, 2019, game. The dueling dual-threat quarterbacks, Austin Fisher and Dorian Plumley, both routinely found the end zone on long runs or with deep passes.
Conducting Noble’s offense, Fisher scored six total touchdowns — three through the air and three on the ground.
Plumley threw for 325 yards and ran for another 216 yards. He accounted for six touchdowns, five passing and one rushing.
“It was like a roller coaster of emotions,” George said. “You’re ecstatic one minute when you break a play. The next thing you know they break a big play. It was just back and forth.”
The style of offense the teams ran is vastly different than the traditional run-heavy flexbone or wishbone offenses that high schools commonly used just over a decade ago.
And many teams around the state are doing the same.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years,” Bishop McGuinness coach Bryan Pierce said. “Back in 2004, we were just running it down people’s throats and I think we threw the ball maybe five times a game. Now through the transition, I’ve just grown with the game and you just see how much different it is through the passing aspect of it.”
More and more coaches have seen the advantage of spreading players out, throwing quick passes and performing simple plays. It has caught fire in the college ranks, finally even coming into vogue in the run-happy SEC. NFL teams have adopted some of the spread, and now, high schools are widely adopting the style, which causes the percentage of the big one-play score to rise.
“You get really good athletes out there in space and you get them the ball, they can make one guy miss and go,” George said. “In the old traditional days, you’re running in between the tackles and there’s three or four guys that might get a shot on you.”
The birth of the run-pass-option has given defenses trouble throughout the years. In the more traditional offense, defenses had an easier time tackling because every player was nearly stacked on top of each other. The offenses have adapted to avoid that.
“Now the idea is to spread people out and let your athletes be athletes,” Atchison said. “When you put them in a box and in a confined space they can’t do as many things. But when you spread people out and get that guy in space, that’s where it makes you hurt.”
The new-age style has not only given teams the big-play ability but also allowed them to run a lot more plays.
The result has been more possessions and scoring opportunities.
Many teams have taken advantage and almost completely eliminated huddling in between plays. It’s become common to see high school coaches, like their college counterparts, calling plays from the sideline through hand gestures and signs as players stand near or where they already need to be in the formation.
“I think there’s an advantage to get up on the line of scrimmage and get your play called fast and snap the ball,” Mustang coach Lee Blankenship said. “We believe there is and that’s something that we have done for a lot of years and the places that I’ve been.”
While spending time at OU as a walk-on quarterback behind Heisman winner Jason White and then playing as a transfer at East Central, Blankenship studied dynamic offenses in search of a scheme that would give his team an advantage.
He stumbled upon Gus Malzhan and his hurry-up offense.
“He was one of the first guys to start going hurry-up in high school,” Blankenship said. “He put a lot of points on the board in that fast-paced [offense].”
Long before he became the head coach at Auburn, Malzhan implemented the hurry-up, no-huddle philosophy into his high school team’s offense in 1997. He took Shiloh Christian in Arkansas to four state title games and won two state championships. He then moved to Springdale where his team broke 12 offensive school records in his first season.
But it wasn’t just the number of points Malzhan’s teams scored that attracted Blankenship to the offense. It allowed teams with smaller players to run an effective offense.
“It neutralizes size sometimes when you’ve got kids that can get up and play fast,” Blankenship said. “We definitely have that advantage, so it’s been good for us.”
No team is any more representative of the new-style offenses contributing to high-scoring games than Blankenship’s Mustang team. It scored 50 points in an October game that featured 86 total points.
But Mustang is hardly alone. Stillwater scored 70 points in a game that featured 87 points last week and Edmond Santa Fe scored 69 points in a game that featured 83 points at the beginning of October.
The scores are big — and they show no signs of slowing down.
“These offenses nowadays, you can be behind and score quick,” Atchison said. “Momentum is a crazy thing. It’s just one of those deals.”