Quarterbacks thriving in pass-happy PFL
(STATS) – When Jacksonville senior Kade Bell and Morehead State junior Austin Gahafer combined for nearly 100 passing attempts earlier this month, no one in the Pioneer Football League batted an eye.
That’s because slinging the ball around the field has become par for the course.
The PFL is near the top of the FCS in many passing categories, ranking second among the 13 leagues in completions (1,253) and attempts (2,356), and third in yards (14,653) and touchdowns (116).
"We implemented the spread offense we use now back in 2011, and I feel like we were maybe one of the first teams in our league to go to the spread," Morehead State coach Rob Tenyer said. "Now you see various forms of it just about with every PFL team."
Morehead State paid a visit to Jacksonville in Week 5, and all the attention was fittingly on the quarterback position with Bell entering with a PFL-best 304.3 passing yards per game and Gahafer second at 268.8 while topping the league with 11 touchdown throws.
Bell was the PFL offensive player of the opening week after passing for 269 yards and a TD in a 20-14 win at Delaware, the first for a PFL team against the Colonial Athletic Association – which has four squads ranked in the STATS FCS Top 25.
Gahafer earned the honor in Week 2 as well as being named the STATS FCS National Offensive Player of the Week, completing 35 of 62 attempts for 447 yards – fifth-most in the FCS this season – and four TDs while also catching a 23-yard pass for a score in a 43-40 defeat at VMI.
Those 62 attempts are also the fifth-most in the FCS, with Bell doing him one better – 63 in a 20-16 win at Marist on Sept. 26 that’s tied for the third-most.
That set the stage for their meeting Oct. 3.
Gahafer was 32 of 53 for 324 yards with three TDs, but it wasn’t enough as Bell completed 22 of 45 throws for 351 yards and two scores to lead the Dolphins to a 30-26 victory.
Fast forward three weeks and Bell ranks fourth in the FCS with 312.0 passing yards per game while Gahafer sits 10th at 293.7. Bell and Gahafer are also tied for fourth with 17 touchdown passes, and Gahafer (120) is tied for fifth and Bell (108) is tied for 10th in points responsible for.
"I don’t watch a lot of the other teams while they are on offense, but when I have, I feel like many of the PFL teams are running similar plays to what we run," Gahafer said. " … We like to play fast because it doesn’t allow the defense a lot of time to prepare and react to what we are accomplishing on offense."
Bell’s career high-tying six TD passes in a 49-28 win over NAIA opponent Edward Waters last Saturday are tied for the most in the FCS. He threw five against Stetson the previous game to again earn PFL offensive player of the week honors.
Bell, named to the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List on Wednesday, is first among active FCS quarterbacks in touchdown passes (85) and second in passing yards (8,851).
"Our system is a pro-style offense, so it’s really an NFL pro-style passing game and we feel like we do it really well here and we’ve been very successful doing it," said Kerwin Bell, Jacksonville’s coach and Kade’s father.
San Diego’s Anthony Lawrence (12) and Butler senior Matt Shiltz (11) also rank in the top 25 in the FCS in TD passes. Lawrence was named the PFL offensive player of the week and STATS FCS National Freshman of the Week after going 22 of 33 for 326 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-0 win over Drake last weekend.
San Diego coach Dale Lindsey says he likes to use play action and bootlegs to get the running game going and open things up for Lawrence.
"Just take what is given," Lawrence said. "We don’t want to push the ball too much and the run definitely sets up the pass because we have a great run game so it opens passing lanes and lets receivers get open."
Shiltz is also 10th in the FCS in points responsible for, but he’s relied on more than just his arm. Shiltz is ninth among FCS quarterbacks with 454 rushing yards and tied for eighth with six TDs on the ground.
"We attempt to be balanced and know you have to run the ball well to win," Butler coach Jeff Voris said. "But each game kind of dictates what you can do and you have to take advantage of opportunities and matchups."
Gahafer (19), Bell (18) and Shiltz (17) rank among the FCS leaders in combined passing and rushing touchdowns.
"Most of these teams in our league run a no-huddle offense, fast paced, so you get more plays," Kerwin Bell said. "A lot of our people in our league utilize the passing game to help balance their attack, and I think that’s why our conference has been so successful doing it."