PHOENIX (AP) — David Shaw played receiver under one of the best passing-game coaches in football history, but the one thing that stuck with him through the years was the foundation of Bill Walsh’s philosophy: Balance.
Known as a passing-game guru who created record-setting schemes, the former Stanford and San Francisco 49ers coach always emphasized that all his players understand how the defensive front was lined up and the best way to attack it.
Sometimes that meant quick-hitting passes in what became known as the West Coast offense, but often it was by running the ball to keep the defense honest.
“A lot of people forgot about Bill Walsh in that 49ers run they had, when they won their first Super Bowl they were an outstanding running team; they were a better running team than passing team,” Shaw said on Tuesday. “That’s where it always started with Bill and what I adopted also.”
In his first year as head coach at his alma mater, Shaw has incorporated the same establish-the-run-first philosophy that Walsh and Jim Harbaugh, the man Shaw replaced at Stanford, used as their offensive foundations.
He isn’t alone.
Despite its deserved reputation as a passing conference, the power in the Pac-12 lies in the ability to run the ball.
Certainly, passing is still the dominant theme; the conference has five of the top 25 passing teams, just one in the top 35 rushing. But the teams having the most success in the Pac-12 so far this season are the ones that can grind it out on the ground and keep defenses from gearing up to stop the pass.
“As an old defensive coach, I firmly believe you’ve got to have a running game to set everything else up,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team averages 192 yards passing and 171 rushing. “If you can’t run the football and become one-dimensional on offense, you’re going to struggle.”
The power of balance can be seen across the top echelon of the Pac-12.
Cal has been one of the surprises of the early season, opening with wins over Fresno State, Colorado and Presbyterian. The Bears have done it, not surprisingly, with balance, averaging 277 yards through the air, 178 on the ground.
Utah relies on John White, the nation’s ninth-leading rusher, and Washington is relatively close in its run-to-pass ratio thanks to Chris Polk’s 120 yards per game.
Even No. 23 Southern Cal, despite having one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country in Matt Barkley, has relied on a keep-them-off-balance running game to open the season 3-0.
No. 10 Oregon, known for its wide open offense, has the nation’s eighth-best rushing attack, averaging 261 yards per game to go with 278 through the air.
The Ducks rely a lot on LaMichael James, a Heisman Trophy finalist a year ago who’s averaging 108 yards rushing per game this season, but also throw in De’Anthony Thomas and Tre Carson to keep defenses honest.
“The defenses in this league are very good and if you’re just one-dimensional, I think they can gang up on that,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “If you can be balanced and make them play the run and the pass, it’ll kind of give them a little bit more problems to prepare for.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Arizona has learned how tough it can be to be one-dimensional.
The Wildcats have the nation’s second-leading passer in Nick Foles, who’s already thrown for over 1,000 yards, but their running game is 116th in the country — out of 120 teams — averaging a barely there 55 yards per game.
The inability to run the ball hurt Arizona in losses to Oklahoma State and to Stanford last week, and the Wildcats will need to find some way to improve with Oregon coming up next.
“We have to get more out of those plays,” Arizona coach Mike Stoops said.
At Stanford, quarterback Andrew Luck has garnered most of the attention and for good reason. The senior returned to Stanford instead of bolting for the NFL and is a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, throwing for 786 yards and eight touchdowns with one interception.
But the Cardinal’s forte is its powerful running game, led by a physical offensive line and fast but strong back Stepfan Taylor, who’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry on a team that nets 196 yards rushing and 285 passing.
“That’s who we are and who we’ve always been,” Shaw said. “When coach Harbaugh first got here, we talked about establishing a balanced attack and it’s been constant, what we’ve tried to do from the beginning.”
It’s turned into a pretty good blueprint.