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I believe it's a hard running, smashmouth play when a bruising running back fights for 3 yards, the defense piles on and all you see is a cloud of dust. The saying is actually more about a style of football rather than any one play. I believe it goes back to the Woody Hayes/Bo Schembechler era of the Big Ten where most of the teams in the mid-western conferences relied on a grinding, short-run game.

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Q: 3 yards and a cloud of dust would be considered what kind a play?
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