STILLWATER, Okla. — The Big 12 is ready to run again.
The pass-happy league that's been known in recent years for producing Heisman Trophy finalists at quarterback is now home to the nation's top three rushers.
Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter, Kansas State's Daniel Thomas and Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray pulled off a rare trifecta in the opening weekend of the season, becoming only the fifth trio in conference history to rush for 200 yards apiece on the same day.
That hadn't happened in a dozen years in a conference that has lately become so passionate about passing. In fact, there had been only three 200-yard rushing performances total over the past two years — much less in the same day.
Texas' Ricky Williams, Oklahoma's De'Mond Parker and Kansas' David Winbush were the last Big 12 trio of 200-yard rushers, back on Oct. 24, 1998. It also happened three times in 1996, with Texas Tech's Byron Hanspard, Kansas' June Henley, Iowa State's Troy Davis and Nebraska's Ahman Green among those contributing.
It wasn't until a group of top-notch quarterbacks including 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel and Graham Harrell cycled through the league for it to happen again.
"That's natural," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "I think you play to your strengths, and when you have guys like that, you play to them."
And the Big 12's running resurgence isn't just the senior trio with the gaudy numbers. Freshman Taylor Martinez had 127 yards in a revival of the running quarterback at Nebraska, and Texas has committed to being more of a run-oriented team, though Week 1 didn't produce any big numbers.
At Oklahoma State, the hiring of new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, a former Mike Leach assistant who created the nation's top passing offense last season at Houston, created visions of a four-receiver spread.
That all changed this summer when Holgorsen approached offensive line coach Joe Wickline with the idea of testing out a full house backfield. The Cowboys designed a new offensive formation with three running backs to feature Hunter, a third-team All-American in 2008 who missed most of last season with an ankle injury.
"We experimented with it, didn't really know how it was going to turn out," Holgorsen said. "It turned out all right, I guess."
The formation, with quarterback Brandon Weeden operating out of the pistol, was conceived as a way to get Jeremy Smith and Joseph Randle onto the field with Hunter, and to use the depth at running back that the Cowboys lacked at receiver. Fullbacks Bryant Ward and David Paulsen also line up on either side of Weeden and Hunter, who ran for a career-high 257 yards and four TDs in just over one half against Washington State.
Holgorsen said he'd never before used a similar formation and joked that "in one of my previous lives when the wishbone was around, maybe I was tinkering with it then."
Oklahoma, almost exclusively a shotgun team during Bradford's career, also went with a pistol-based offense to improve on its sagging run production from last season. The Sooners averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last season, their lowest mark since 2001 and the second-lowest in the past 25 years.
"It just gives you a chance to maybe hide some of your tendencies of where your back is and what's going on, but you also get your running back more north and south instead of east and west," offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said.
Murray benefited from his first game as the lone featured back, after splitting time the previous three years with Chris Brown, and also Wilson's desire to re-establish the run game that disappeared last year after injuries to several offensive linemen and tight ends.
Murray carried 35 times for a career-best 218 yards and two touchdowns.
"I truly believe you snowball and you build toughness and physical-ness in a running game as you go through the season, so I did want to start early," Wilson said. "Maybe I was trying to force it, but I wasn't going to get away from it."
It was business as usual for Thomas, the Big 12's rushing leader last season, but with some bigger numbers as his entire family attended a K-State game together for the first time. He ran for a career-high 234 yards and two scores against UCLA.
"I would guess that the people that are running the ball well feel pretty good about their offensive line and feel pretty good about whoever it is to that's carrying the football," said coach Bill Snyder, whose Wildcats attempted three times as many runs as passes.
"I don't think you get the opportunity to have that kind of yardage if they weren't pretty capable people."