Confusing Defenses and Running Wild

By Beacon Staff

Once again, Columbia Falls is leading Northwestern A in rushing yards by a large margin. The Wildcats are undeniably fast and shifty. But speed needs structure, a system to maximize that swiftness. That’s why coach John Thompson has turned to the “fly” offense, a close cousin to the well-known Wing-T formation. It’s a growing phenomenon around the nation, most recognizably utilized by West Virginia University, and it has paid dividends for Columbia Falls over the past two seasons.

Relying on motion, misdirection, deception and, of course, fast kids, the Wildcats’ offense is often bewildering for defenses. In essence, it’s a two-back Wing-T formation run out of the shotgun, putting a running back on each side of the quarterback, with one or two split ends down the line along with a tight end. A split end goes in motion on nearly every play.

The Wildcats are averaging almost 250 yards rushing per game, despite losing last year’s top rusher Josh Wilson, who transferred to C.M. Russell. No other team in Northwestern A averages 200 yards. Last year Columbia Falls averaged 250 yards per game on the ground and the next closest team was Whitefish at 165. This season seniors Stephen Baumgartner and Mackey Nolan have led the way, rushing for more than 800 yards combined through five games for the 3-2 Wildcats. Fellow senior John Woody has also put up nice numbers.

Baumgartner is averaging nearly 10 yards per carry and has 11 touchdowns, including a four-touchdown performance in a 42-6 win over Ronan on Sept. 26. He said it was difficult to figure out the fly offense at first, but once he did, the field opened up.

“It’s fun because even when you don’t get the ball, they think you have the ball and they chase you,” Baumgartner said.

At its most rudimentary, the system provides three options: the quarterback or one of the two backs running the ball. But the split end sprinting down the line could also take the ball, giving Columbia Falls four options, though in the jumble for defenses it can feel like much more than that. Fake to the split end and hand off to one of the wingbacks, or vice-a-versa, or just let the quarterback shoot through the gap with a small army of speedy lead blockers ahead of him. Passing is an option as well. It’s often difficult for spectators to figure out who has the ball. Timing is vital.

“The motion creates the first threat,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he switched to this spread format at the beginning of last season because he had great team speed. A few fast guys here and there might not be enough, but Thompson noticed he had kids who could run at a variety of positions. The Wildcats are as fast or faster this year and can mix up their formations, even though the basic concept remains the same. The Wildcats run about 70 percent of the time, Thompson said, but the offense’s set-up doesn’t allow defenses to crowd the middle in anticipation of the run – they might get burned by the pass.

“Defenses can’t load up the box,” Thompson said. “Or they can try but they leave guys in man-to-man or even unmanned coverage.”

West Virginia has garnered increased national exposure the past couple of years because of its wide-open, exciting running attack. It all starts with senior quarterback Pat White, a lefty who’s built like a receiver and moves like a halfback but can drop back and launch the ball as well. The Wildcats don’t have White, but they have multiple players who can alternate between the various back positions and quarterback.

Nolan was the Wildcats’ starting quarterback last year and at the beginning of this season. During that period he split time with junior Mitchell Wassam. As of late, though, Thompson has moved Nolan to running back and handed over full-time quarterback duties to Wassam. Not only is Nolan a good runner, he’s a solid lead blocker as well.

“We can move Mackey back to quarterback whenever we want if we need to,” Thompson said.

In their three victories, the Wildcats have outscored Browning, Ronan and Libby 104-18. The Wildcats’ two losses have been close affairs, losing to Butte Central 26-19 and Stevensville 36-22. Thompson feels the key ingredient to getting over the hump in those close games is developing the passing game. The run, clearly, has been established.

“If we could hit the right receiver, we’ll be in good shape,” Thompson said.