How Darren McFadden Helped The Wildcat Go Mainstream

By John D. Davis / @John_D_Davis

It’s no secret in football points come at a premium in big games. In 2006, the football world was universally introduced to an offensive formation that would revolutionize scoring inside the 10-yard line. The Wildcat formation can be defined as a formation that simply ensures that the best player on offense has the ball off the snap, allowing him to change the tide of the game in an instant. The Wildcat formation was just the beginning of how complex offensive coordinators can be when trying to score 6.

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, head coach Les Miles and his Tigers of LSU were just trying to finish their football season unscathed toward their run to a national championship. Waiting for them that day was an Arkansas Razorback team that was notoriously known for instituting a formation that was acclimated to their strengths of power running lead by a triplet backfield featuring Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. They didn’t run the Wild Hog — their version of the Wildcat — early in this game, but the Razorbacks knew that their backfield was perhaps the most diverse in the nation. Knowing this, the concept of the play calls out of the formation were primed to be successful in this matchup against the No. 1 team in the nation.

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Long before Arkansas presented their version of the Wildcat in this edition for the battle of the boot, the model of the formation was introduced in 1997 by current Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder. Derived out of the wishbone formation, coach Snyder used his quarterback Mike Bishop as one of his main trumps during the season as his wildcats went on to finish 11-1 in route to a Fiesta Bowl victory. Bishop, who was listed as the team’s quarterback was able to showcase his dual abilities but thanks in part to the unbalanced alignment of the O-line, the rushing lanes appeared much quicker from the snap in this formation, than in a traditional shotgun formation. Bishop accounted for 22 total touchdowns, nine of which came on the ground.

After Snyder’s experiment had shown results, more coaches started to conceal their offensive identities around getting the ball to their playmakers in the Wildcat. Coaches such as Urban Meyer, who at the time of Snyder’s presentation of the formation was a coach — at Bowling Green University utilized his best players by not only just a direct snap to the quarterback but by installing sweeps from the slot receivers in the lineup. Meyer who would go on to coach at three other schools. Meyer was famously known for going back heavily to the formations concept while he was head coach at the University of Florida Gainesville and was fortunate to have on the offensive side of his team players in Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Chris Rainey. Tebow would find superb success in this style of play eventually winning the Heisman with Rainey and Harvin as hasty accessories in the package. In 2009 the team would go on to win their 2nd national championship in three years.

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In the battle of the Bayou, LSU’s defense was highly touted. They had a stiff front seven lead by All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey who made teams think twice about running the ball, let alone sweeps or inside power runs that usually thrive under the Wildcat.

Arkansas played to the more traditional approach of advancing the ball by attempting I formation dives and shotgun draws after unsuccessful attempts in the three step passing game.

After going 1-4 in 3rd down conversions on their first four offensive possessions, Arkansas Head Coach Houston Nutt unleashed RUN-DMC and the Wild Hog offense. After fumbling on two kickoffs Darren McFadden couldn’t be stopped. Rushing for 238 yards and three touchdowns, the Little Rock native listed at RB added a wrinkle in the Wildcat formation by also throwing for a TD strengthening the Wildcat formations reputation as an agonizing offense. The Hogs would eventually fight with the Tigers well into three overtimes before pulling off the 50-48 upset.

The aftermath of the upset did result in more teams taking the initiative to institute the revolutionary offense to their playbooks. In fact, the following year, the NFL’s Miami Dolphins ran the Wildcat offense to take down the New England Patriots and their consistent harassing defense In a regular season match-up. The Dolphins ran through the Patriots with running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown to a 38-13 victory. What was most impressive about the win was that all of the touchdowns were from Brown, who scored all five touchdowns (four rushing, one passing).

Currently, some would say the popularity of the formation has fizzled out due to teams now being prepared. Defenses have now found ways of containing the intangible signal caller in this formation inside the tackles and loading the line of scrimmage with more inside rushers. Even if that is the case, we see more and more offenses seek players who have that skill to bust through the holes like a ball carrier and to also be patient for passing lanes to open as a passer. Think of former NFL MVP Cam Newton and Heisman Trophy Winner Lamar Jackson as recent examples.

As we reminisce, it’s fun to think about what it would’ve been like to see Reggie Bush, Michael Vick or Vince Young run the wildcat during their tenures in the sport. If their skills would’ve created chaos for defenses, all because of a simple tweak in philosophy, that the ball was constantly in a playmaker’s hands? All hail the wildcat.

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