The Origins of the Wildcat Offense: Before the spread heavy, read-option loving offenses we find across today’s Southeastern Conference, there was a team that showed the advantages of having to account for all eleven players on offense, i.e. the running quarterback position in the quaintly named “Wildcat” formation. Deriving from the same schematical principals that gave football the single wing discipline, the discovery of the “Wildcat” package changed spread-offenses throughout college football, allowing the quarterback position to become a key factor in the run game. The aforementioned SEC team that rode this unorthodox scheme to success was the 2006 Arkansas Razorbacks, which without a suitable quarterback on their roster and with three future NFL running backs, enlisted the “Wild Hog” to become factor in the SEC Western Division. Incorporating no traditional quarterback and all three running back on the field at the same time, the Razorbacks used this bastard child of the spread offense to propel their team into the national spotlight.
The Hire That Created the Wild Hog: We must first set the stage of the dire situation facing the Arkansas football program. Razorbacks’ head coach Houston Nutt had been in power at Arkansas since 1998, coming in as one of the hottest coaching names in the country but had fallen out of favor with the alumni and fans. During his tenure Nutt had varying degrees of success and had taken the Razorbacks out of dark days of the late 1990s. In retrospect this element alone bought Nutt unearned seasons at the helm of the program. Yet, in the middle to late half of the first decade of the new millennium, Nutt knew is days were limited. With recruiting lagging with all the hot new coaches being hired across the SEC (Nick Saban at LSU being the main problem) and the local media beginning to call for his job, Nutt made a rash but historic coaching hire in 2006. This hire of a new offensive coordinator would not save the Arkansas program or Houston Nutt’s job but would shape the Southeastern Conference for the next ten years.
Gus Malzahn and the Foreshadowing of the SEC Future: As mentioned, the Razorbacks’ head coach was firmly on the hot seat in Fayetteville in the summer of 2006 and decided to bring in a locally known high school coach to attempt to save his job and bring with him a trio of blue chip recruits. This coach was Gus Malzahn of Springdale High School and although in today’s game he is known as an offensive genius, when Nutt hired the Arkansas high school football coaching legend, it was nothing more than a package deal to get quarterback Mitch Mustain and wide receivers Damian Williams and Andrew Norman, all of which were nationally coveted prospects, to sign with the Razorbacks. Call it fate or Auburn karma but as none of the three prospects ever progresses into anything, one has to wonder where the SEC would be without this event?
Fitting an Offense to a Roster: Moving on from the recruiting trickle down from the Malzahn hire, the newly appointed Arkansas offensive coordinator found a glaring hole in the Razorbacks roster when arriving on campus. There was no Southeastern Conference caliber quarterback on this team. Yes, you would assume the five-star quarterback from Springdale High, Mitch Mustain, would be given the reigns to led this team, but Malzahn had other ideas. When evaluating his roster, Malzahn recognized he had a luxury no other conference team had his season, he had a gigantic upperclassmen led offensive line and three running backs that would go on to be starters in the NFL. These running backs were Darron McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hills. After many conversations with his coaching connections Malzahn decided to implement an uncanny offense that uses principals of the high tempo spread, single-wing veer and triple option but also allowed him to use all three tailbacks in the same backfield. Thankfully during Malzahn’s many high coaching jobs, he had run elements of all three offenses, adapting to the talents found on his high school teams. Now Malzahn would use these same skills to adapt the talents of the Hogs to be able to compete in the brutal SEC.
The Night the Nation Noticed the Wild-Hog: November 3rd, 2007. This was the night that all of college football came to terms with the Wildcat package, as the word “gimmick” was removed from the definition of this offense. In this game, in which the Gamecocks traveled to Razorback Stadium ranked 23rd in the nation, South Carolina would allow nearly six hundred yards rushing and leave town searching for their defensive identity. But beyond frustrating the Ole Ball Coach, which is always epic, the lasting repercussions to this night would last well into the next decade for God’s Conference. Below are a few records that were broken that early November night in Fayetteville.
- Darren McFadden set the SEC single-game rushing record with 323 yards, which is also the Arkansas single-game rushing record.
- Darren McFadden also set a new school record for all-purpose yards with 357, which is also the fourth-best mark in Southeastern Conference history.
- Felix Jones gained 119 yards on his first 4 carries, including touchdown runs of 40 and 73 yards. He finished with a career-best 163 yards on 12 carries.