On a cool, sunny January morning in Dallas, the Houston Cougars proceeded to throw the ball as many times as they possibly could against Penn State.
It was Case Keenum's final game as Houston's quarterback, concluding a decorated and record-breaking career. And co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kliff Kingsbury was going to let Keenum sling the ball around to his heart's content, challenging him to reach 80 attempts.
"I told him, 'If we don't get to 80, I'm going to be mad,'" said Kingsbury, now the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. "I wanted to send (Keenum) out right and we knew that was the way to beat that team."
Houston threw it on the first 25 plays, 29 of the first 30 and 69 times in all (to just 14 rushing attempts) while working the Nittany Lions 30-14 in the TicketCity Bowl.
As Texas A&M enters its first season in the Southeastern Conference, it does so with many eyes on the offense brought in by head coach Kevin Sumlin and Kingsbury, an up-tempo spread attack rooted in Air Raid principles. Sumlin hired Dana Holgorsen in 2008, a disciple of the Mike Leach coaching tree at Texas Tech. Kingsbury got his coaching start by going to Houston as a graduate assistant to work with Holgorsen and Sumlin and has since added his own flavor to the offense since he became co-offensive coordinator in 2010 after Holgorsen left for a job at Oklahoma State.
Because of its shotgun formations, four and five-receiver sets and day’s like the TicketCity Bowl, it's easy to surmise that the offense is all pass, all the time.
Sumlin is aware of this perception and welcomes it.
"We've been able to adapt to do things, whether we were at Houston, other places I've been, to utilize our personnel," Sumlin said at SEC media days. "People say we throw the ball all the time. That's fine. I'd like for people to think that. That's not necessarily the truth."
That's not to say that the ball isn't thrown around a lot. In Sumlin's four seasons at Houston, there was definitely more passing than running in the offense.
"I think if you look at the statistics [at Houston], you look at our ratio, it's a lot closer to 55/45 than 70/30," Sumlin said. "Our run game percentages and stats have been pretty effective. So being called 'pass happy', that's fine with us, as long as people want to defend the pass all the time."
The numbers appear to back up that claim. Not counting the TicketCity Bowl (which Sumlin did not coach, as he had already accepted the Texas A&M job), the Cougars ran 4,077 plays in four seasons under Sumlin. In that time they attempted passes 60.2 percent of the time (2,454 attempts) while running the ball 39.8 percent (1,623 attempts).
Yes, it’s mostly passing, but the chasm isn’t as large as perceived.
The Aggies will enter this season without a quarterback that has starting experience. Only one of the three starting candidates has even attempted a pass (Jameill Showers) and none have significant playing time.
That's where running backs Christine Michael, Ben Malena and an experienced offensive line that returns boatloads of experience, including an elite tandem of tackles (Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews), come into play.
"It's going to be huge, especially with a young quarterback," Kingsbury said. "We're going to lean on the offensive line when we have to, because there's going to be a learning curve for the quarterbacks. You don't want to put it all on him."
The only time in Sumlin's four years that the Cougars went without an experienced quarterback for an extended length of time was 2010, when Keenum and backup Cotton Turner were lost to season-ending injuries in the third game of the year. The final nine games were played by true freshmen, Terrance Broadway and David Piland, with Piland playing the final eight.
That season, Sumlin and Kingsbury leaned much more on their running game, finding as close to a true balance as they ever had, passing 54.1 percent of the time (484 attempts) while running it 45.9 percent (410).
While this year will be different for Texas A&M with its quarterbacks' preparations (each have had repetitions through spring ball and will go through fall camp while each of Houston's freshmen had limited reps as they were deep on the depth chart to start the 2010 season), don't be surprised to find a ratio that teeters closer to 55/45 considering the strength the Aggies will have in the running game.
"The first year in the system we're going to need everybody and it's not going to be an all-out, throw-it-every-play type of situation," Kingsbury said.