IOWA CITY — For a little more than 20 years, what we all know now as the Air Raid offense has graced college football with its wide open, gun-slinging fun. Well, everywhere except the Big Ten, that is.
College football’s unattached fans have, in large part, Mike Leach to thank for that. As an assistant at Kentucky, then predominantly at Oklahoma, the offense took hold. His years at Texas Tech made it a household name.
Along the way, former players and assistants who worked for him caught the bug. One of those guys? North Texas head coach Seth Littrell, who brings his Mean Green football team to Kinnick Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. date Saturday with Iowa (ESPN2). Quarterback Mason Fine pilots the offense for North Texas now and the style with which he and the offense play offers the same challenges the Hawkeyes saw against Iowa State — and struggled with, at times.
An Air Raid attack can either shrink the gap between mid-major and Power 5 conferences, or it can exacerbate it. Littrell is well aware of that.
“Depending on who you’re playing, what your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses are, it can help,” Littrell said. “But it can also hurt you. It’s wide open. You’re getting after it. You’re playing fast. But if you’re playing against a good defense and not getting first downs, it doesn’t help you because your defense is on the field.”
Littrell played running back at Oklahoma from 1998-2001 — winning a national championship in 2000 — under Bob Stoops and then-offensive coordinator Leach. After a stint at Kansas, Littrell joined Leach’s staff at Texas Tech as running backs coach from 2005-08 before stops at Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina before being named head coach of the Mean Green in December 2015.
All along the way, Littrell worked with the Air Raid, and like most others whose football lives have been spent in it, it’s what he’s comfortable with and what allows him to recruit players from the state of Texas that might not otherwise go to the high-profile schools.
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Texas high school football sees lots of spread offenses and has produced Air Raid quarterbacks like Graham Harrell, who excelled under Leach at Texas Tech, was drafted by the Green Bay Packers and now is Littrell’s offensive coordinator.
Fine might not be a Texas kid, but being from nearby Oklahoma, it’s not all that different. And if nothing else, for him and many other quarterbacks, Air Raid is a dream system for a quarterback — because who doesn’t envision throwing it all over the place as a kid pretending to be a college quarterback?
Fine has completed 69.1 percent of his passes so far this season for 648 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in a win against Lamar and loss to SMU.
“It’s what I ran in high school and when Coach Littrell got that job and hired Coach Harrell, I couldn’t have been more excited,” Fine said. “It’s a quarterback’s dream to sit back there and throw the ball all around.”
North Texas saw what Iowa struggled with against Iowa State. With film available on a capable team that plays a similar style, Littrell and Co. have encouraging data on how to attack the edges, quick throws in the slot and certain zone running schemes on the outside.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz knows that, too. In his weekly availability Tuesday, he mentioned being impressed by Fine and especially with the Mean Green’s tempo — which was another key component to Iowa State’s success offensively last week.
“This is a similar challenge (to Iowa State), only it’s different,” Ferentz said. “(The Mean Green) don’t have the size. This team doesn’t have the size at the skill positions, but they’ve certainly got really good speed. They’ve got guys that are really dangerous and running backs included. So they’re going to really test us. But the pace in itself, the tempo is another factor and then the quarterbacks are really — he’s a good player.”
Ultimately it’s that size that could — and probably should — prove the difference.
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The game two years ago still is on the minds of players who were around for that game, and Fine said while he wasn’t one of them, he’s had conversations about it in context of how much has changed for them since then. Middle linebacker E.J. Ejiya is another who was being recruited but not yet at North Texas, and sees the chip the Mean Green have about coming back to the site of such a lopsided loss.
Ejiya said the things you’re supposed to say as an underdog going to play a Big Ten school, offering up that “you’re going to ball or you’re not going to ball. … We’re not going up there just to play football, just because they’re paying us (as a university).”
Like everyone else Iowa plays, those at North Texas know what Iowa is going to give them. What they’ll have as an answer with the Air Raid will determine whether or not Saturday is a repeat of 2015.
“Every system is a good system as long as you know the answer,” Littrell said. “There’s pluses and minuses depending on who you’re playing. I do know this: Iowa is very sound, very physical, really big, strong guys and for us to feel like we’re going to line up and ram the ball down Iowa, that probably won’t happen. We’ll have to shake things up and doing a good job of putting our guys in situations to make plays.”
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