The first organized game of football took place in 1869. The first legal forward pass didn’t come for another 37 years.
As much as the pass has gained popularity over the last 110 years, especially over the past 10-20 years at various levels, there always has been and always will be a place in football for the run game.
As long as Maine’s high school football state championships are played outdoors the weekend before Thanksgiving — or even if they somehow get pushed back later in the year in the future — running the ball will be paramount, no matter how good of a passing game a team has.
It gets cold in November, and either rain or snow (or both) are often in the forecast. It’s much easier to wrap two arms around a wet pigskin than to try to grip and throw it with one potentially wet hand and hope the intended target can grasp the spiraling, pointed-oval missile with two likely wet ones.
Even on the driest days it’s been said that three things can happen when you throw a pass, and two of them are bad. The two negative outcomes (incomplete or intercepted pass) only increase in probability in November.
“Late in the season, running the ball and stopping the run are the biggest things to advance (in the playoffs),” said Leavitt coach Mike Hathaway, whose teams have in some years had success passing more than running the ball.
“A strong run game is … important late in the season when the temperature hovers around the freezing mark,” Mountain Valley coach Pat Mooney said. “If you look at some of the teams that went to a state championship last year, the vast majority of them ran run-oriented offenses: Marshwood (Delaware Wing-T), Winslow (Wing-I with power sets), Yarmouth (Pistol double-wing), MCI (Power-I), Portland (I-Formation).”
Hathaway, who has utilized the pass-friendly spread formation, is leaning on a run-first offense this season, due to his personnel.
“With an experienced back like Hunter (Sirois) and inexperienced quarterbacks we are trying to run the ball more,” Hathaway said.
The Hornets are also dealing with an inexperienced offensive line, and to counter that have used read-option plays, which were bred from run-heavy strategies. It takes advantage of a quarterback’s athleticism while also taking a defensive lineman (hopefully) out of the equation, thus giving the offensive line a better chance at blocking the remaining defensive players.
Mooney is firmly in the camp of utilizing power-running formations. His Falcons use a base single-wing offense, and the player normally referred to as the “quarterback” is called a “spin back” in that formation.
Mooney played at Mountain Valley in the early 2000s under former Falcons coach Jim Aylward, who is now at Mt. Blue. Aylward’s teams have always featured a good running game.
“An effective run game allows an offense to control the clock, wear down a defense and, ultimately, dictate the flow of a game,” Mooney said. “When you are able to possess the football, the other team can’t score. The longer you are able to possess it, the ability of your opponent to score diminishes. I’m a firm believer in winning time of possession and controlling tempo.”
Backing up Mooney’s belief in the controlling the clock, Oak Hill’s Stacen Doucette, who called himself an “old-school coach at times,” said during the preseason that “first downs are OK.”
Like Hathaway, Mooney believes a team’s offensive strategy is partially determined by personnel. Mooney isn’t averse to throwing the ball, and Falcons teams under Aylward at times had capable quarterbacks who were allowed to show off their skills, but this year’s Mountain Valley team is set up to run the ball effectively.
“I think that most teams are able to field a roster that has comfortable running back depth, whereas not every team, particularly in Class C or D, is able to say the same about quarterback depth every year,” Mooney said. “If you are committed to running a spread offense, then your need to have an athletic signal caller — as well as receivers — becomes critical.”
Even when a team has the necessary personnel to roll out a proficient passing attack, running the ball isn’t such a bad idea. Winthrop/Monmouth, which has one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the state in three-year starter Matt Ingram as well as a plethora of pass-catchers, runs the ball early and often.
“We’re still basically a Wing-T running team, and we’ll face teams and come out with that,” Ramblers coach Dave St. Hilaire said during the preseason, “but we’ve got that (shotgun formation) in our back pocket.”
St. Hilaire’s team has championship aspirations this season. For Mooney’s team, if not this year then hopefully soon. Hathaway has coached many a November playoff game. Doucette has led his Raiders to three straight Class D titles, and his team has the pieces to win another.
One of those pieces is quarterback Matthew Strout. Though Strout has had to step into the shoes of two-time state-title starting QB Dalton Therrien, he has shown an ability to lead the Raiders’ offense. Much of that has to do with his skill-set, which stems from his time as a fullback.
“His skill set’s very different (than Dalton’s),” Doucette said. “He’s a very big kid for the quarterback position, he’s physical, he’s tough to bring down, and we’re going to try to utilize those skills.”
Therrien helped run Oak Hill to two titles, and Parker Asselin did the same three years ago. Now Strout has the chance to do the same.
If the Raiders find themselves playing the third weekend of November, you can bet they will be running the ball. If it’s the Ramblers, Ingram will hand the ball off plenty. And there’s no question as to what Mountain Valley will do if the Falcons are still playing in November.
Running the ball has worked for the nearly 150-year history of organized football. And it’s obituary will not be written in 2016.