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The Split-T was Don Faurot at his progressive best

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Being progressive looked good on Don Faurot.

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SplitTSpread Secrets of the Split-T

The 1941 season was one of the most important transitional years in college football history, even if nobody really knew it at the time. It is the year where Mizzou arguably impacted college football more than it ever had before, and ever would again. It was the year that Don Faurot unveiled the Split-T formation.

He did not do it because he thought it would change football, of course — he did it because he had just lost his star player (Paul Christman) and needed to figure out creative ways to move the ball down the field.

Mizzou had enough potential that it was named Big 6 conference co-favorite.

Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska are on a virtual par with the schedule giving the Tigers their edge. They play both of their strongest rivals at home and won the 1939 flag with a similar program.

The fight for fourth place should be every bit as close between Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas.

Still, Faurot thought he needed something extra.

Let’s once again revisit Bob Broeg’s Ol’ Mizzou: A Story of Missouri Football. A lengthy, phenomenal passage:

As Jim Conzelman and Bud Wilkinson said, the Split-T formation was the greatest offensive contribution in a quarter-century. The quarterback option play, the fascinating keep-or-pitch that distinguished it, has been incorporated into just about every offensive offshoot since then.

What led Faurot to this ingenious juxtaposition of "x's" and "o's"? The thin man was looking for something. Christman gone, he remembered with a shudder the disaster that followed the departure of Jack Frye's passing arm in 1937. Faurot recognized that he had exceptional speed in hip-swiveling 165-pound [Harry] Ice and 180-pound cutback artist [Red] Wade, and an exceptional runner in big 200-pound [Bob] Steuber. Steuber's effectiveness on the end-around had convinced the coach he was a running back, not a receiver.

In 1940 the modernized T-formation had sprung upon the football scene with powerful impact. George Halas with the Chicago Bears and Clark Shaughnessy at Stanford University had refined Ralph Jones' man-in-motion version of the ancient T.

The quarterback no longer squatted behind the center, but merely crouched, hands under the crotch so that he handled on a direct handback, rather than a snap. A halfback went in motion to create better passing situations.

The Bears had slaughtered the Washington Redskins in the National Football League's championship game, 73-0. Stanford had surged from nowhere to the Rose Bowl and defeated Nebraska, 21-13.

Faurot borrowed Nebraska's Rose Bowl film from Biff Jones, investigated, and then made up his mind. He ruled out the man-in-motion because he reasoned that last-second movements by the defensive players made it more difficult for offensive linemen to carry out their blocking assignments. Nor did he like the tight offensive alignment of the regular T, feeling that this cozy, shoulder-to-shoulder offensive line made it easier for defensive linemen, unless blocked thoroughly, to reach out and stop or delay a ballcarrier. Faurot, who liked to spread his line a bit even in the single wing, decided to split his offensive line, leaving a 12-inch space between center and guard, two feet between guard and tackle, and a yard between tackle and end.

Additionally, not figuring on his quarterback to do as much passing as the halfbacks on a run-or-pass option that simulated the cocked-arm threat of a single-wing or short-punt tailback sweeping wide, Faurot tinkered to give his quarterback more mobility and potential as a runner. So he eliminated the quarterback pivot from under center and substituted, instead, a slide that, he felt, would permit more deception and faster handoffs by making the ball exchange to the running back closer to the line on dive plays. Moreover he wanted the quarterback keep-or-give option for a very good reason.

Looking back at the results of his other formations, Faurot had found that his most consistent ground-gainer was a play he had put into the short punt to offset Paul Christman's lack of quickness. To get big Dooz into motion, the coach had devised a play in which the direct snap went not to either of the deep men, the tailback or fullback, but to the closest back. Jim Starmer, the halfback, would reverse into the direction Christman had started. Starmer would either flip a lateral (or pitchout, as it would be called now) to the tailback coming around or fake and go inside end himself. Both plays had averaged well, especially Starmer's fake and keep.

"So I wanted to pressure the defensive end with what amounted to a 2-on-1 break in basketball," said Faurot.

The Split-T could better be called the Sliding-T or, as the coach later suggested, the Missouri-T, or if he had not been so darned modest, the Faurot-T. It succeeded beyond his expectations.

Brawny, brainy Harry Smith, the former Trojan star fresh from a year at guard with the Detroit Lions and only 22 years old, was an English major who never let a simple word stand in the way of the magnificent.

"Don didn't know how volatile the Split-T was," said Smith, years later retired from coaching and well-contented as a physical education professor at Ol' Mizzou. "It was gigantic ... colossus."

In other words, pretty good.

The 1941 season saw the perfect confluence of innovative strategy and improving talent at Mizzou. With Faurot putting his new formation into the heads of a mercilessly fast and physical backfield, the results were staggering.

In 1941, Mizzou averaged fewer than two completions and 40 passing yards per game, but the Tigers also led the country with over 300 per game on the ground. Steuber rushed for 855, Wade 681, and Ice 603. As Broeg put it, theirs was by far the best offense in the midlands. Oh yeah, and their defense allowed only four points per game, three per game after the season opener.

Before we walk through that 1941 season, however, let’s go into more detail on what the Split-T actually was. To do that, we’re going to revisit a series I put together back in 2015.

I. Football never changes

Since the author has in a manner of speaking grown up with the "Split T," he has in the process acquired certain convictions about its offensive value. He has four basic reasons for preferring this system.

1. It requires only average personnel.

2. It averages more yards per play.

3. It springs the backs into the open field more often.

4. It puts greater pressure on standard defenses.

II. The play sequence and other technical details

SplitT-diagram

III. The staples

Again, football never changes. You needed both efficiency and explosiveness in 1950, just as you do in 2015. The methods for accomplishing that have changed only as defenses and the physical capabilities of the players themselves have changed.

IV. The constraints

The success of the Fullback Counter, like that of the sneak, is not measured in terms of its offensive average. This is true in spite of the fact that the play has averaged a commendable 4.7 yards at Missouri over a three-year period.

The fullback counter is utilized as a check play to "freeze" the defense and give the basic series more latitude. The play often results in long yardage, especially when a fast, hefty fullback shakes himself loose in the secondary.

In contrast to the sneak, the counter play is not recommended for short yardage or for goal-line thrusts because of the delay element involved. Delayed plays are usually duck soup for the fast, converging line usually encountered near the goal. Faster-hitting straight plays or wide sweeps are the answer to tight defenses.

V. In which Don Faurot stretches the Split T into a spread

The spread formation sets the right end approximately ten yards away from his tackle. The left half flanks to a position about 10 yards outside and one yard behind the offensive left end. The fullback and the right halfback are in normal position. This widens the defensive halfbacks more than does the single flanker and also uncovers more pass territory. [...]

Since two men on each side are eligible as receivers, these formations are excellent ones from which to pass. Only a limited number of plays can be run with standard blocking. ... If a defense spreads its linebackers to meet the spread formation it will be weaker down the middle.

VI. Let's talk blocking and adjustments

When college football began, it was a "three yards and a cloud of dust" sport. Even when the rules adjustments of the early 20th century opened the game up a bit to decrease injuries, it was still power über alles. The option allowed a little bit of misdirection into the equation, and over time, blocking became less about pushing your guy over and more about keeping your guy out of the runner's way. Since the Split T was originally conceived as a way to make up for disadvantages in size and athleticism, it makes sense that this would be the goal of the blocking, too.

The timing of the war, Faurot’s generosity in sharing his ideas, and his insistence on limited recruiting all conspired to hold him back to some degree at Mizzou. But Faurot’s progressive thought, along with his creativity in combining a lot of influences into something truly unique, changed college football. And some of the principles he formed around this time still actively influence the modern game.