"We weren't only running them a lot, but there were some occasions where we were running them two or even three times in a row," noted offensive lineman Terence Brown. "They were really working well and although they tend to wear you out as an offensive lineman, we're all for moving the football. They're also a lot of fun to do at times."
While the wide receiver slip screens and tight end screens have been hallmarks during past seasons, the variety of screen plays thrown has not. Last week saw as many as six different screen plays being run, and being run in many different down and distance situations.
And not only were they being run, but they worked extraordinarily well by catching Wyoming off guard. Maybe even more importantly, they worked to slow down Wyoming's pass rush on other plays.
"The screen is something that we've gotten away from last year and sometimes even this year to our own fault," commented quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. "You look at some of the teams that have given us problems in years past, and they had good pass rushes and they've done some good things in coverage. The screen game really slows the rush down."
"People can't really tee off on you as much when they're rushing and when we're in certain situations," added Brown. "I mean, we were running it and executing in third-and-longs, so that when the next third-and-long comes they'll have to watch for it and that helps us a lot we feel."
Max Hall's comments leading up the TCU game - a game that in no doubt brought with it the most fearsome pass rush the Cougars would see all season - were all about the importance of staying out of predictable five-step drops that would allow TCU to tee off on them. The easy solution is an effective ground game, but having an even greater variety of things that can keep an opposing defense off balance can only help.
"Along with slowing down the pass rush, it allows us to get easy throws off for the quarterback," explained Doman. "You throw five, six or even seven of those during a game and you take the load off of the quarterback with those throws, and it's something very important that we need to do and hopefully we continue to do it well over the next few games."
Observers of practice saw the offense begin to practice a middle running back screen during preseason practices in 2008, but perhaps due to them being somewhat ineffective during those sessions, they were all but scraped for that season. This season however has seen an even greater emphasis on not only middle running back screens, but a greater variety of screens that were extremely effective last week against Wyoming.
"We started off this spring putting in our screen package," recalled offensive lineman R.J. Willing. "As the weeks went on through the season we came up with plays ourselves as an offense. So we had, I think, two screen plays, and now we have about six or seven variations off of that same screen play and I think it's a credit to our offensive coordinator allowing us as players to help out with the overall scheme."
"Screen plays have always been something we've had since we got here," added Doman. "I think the one thing that shied us away from running so many screens in the past was that we threw so much to our running backs anyway that people were already focusing their coverages on them. We've been able to mix in those screens now with wide receiver screens, tight end screens, and we're throwing them to as many as four different running backs. It's more difficult to identify when we're doing them, and kudos to Coach Anae and his staff for realizing that and adjusting it so we're being more effective."
J.J. Di Luigi was the running back getting the bulk of the screen plays on Saturday. That may be because of his shifty nature and his natural ability in catching the football, but Di Luigi downplays those factors that make him a great option to throw screens to.
"I just think that when I'm in the game, teams aren't expecting us to run," said Di Luigi. "So when we run screens at them, which are sort of like runs more so than just straight drop-back passes, I think it took them off guard. The offensive linemen made it easy for me in how they got off and picked guys off. It was just really fun and hopefully we can continue it."
So is the screen pass, and more specifically the running back screen, here to stay?
"I sure hope so," responded Brown. "Anything we can do to not only slow down a pass rush, but even make yards and execute a different play than teams are used to, it helps us. It helps us a lot and we're obviously for anything that helps us. It's also fun being able to run downhill and pick off guys in the open field. I think we figured some things out offensively and I think that will continue."