By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Wedged into a folding chair inside a white tent adjacent to the visiting locker room at Byrd Stadium, North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin spoke softly while revealing a crucial element to Maryland's offensive attack that he and his teammates did not anticipate.
Throughout the week leading up to a loss that knocked the Tar Heels out of the driver's seat in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division, North Carolina players and coaches pored over film of previous Maryland performances and not once did they pick up on the scheme that helped the Terrapins rush for 195 yards Saturday night. "Wham plays," Austin called them. The Tar Heels never saw them coming.
"We've got to be able to adjust," North Carolina Coach Butch Davis said minutes later, standing at a podium in that same tent. "Because you can't predict with absolute certainty that every time a team shows up that they're going to run exactly everything you've been seeing."
Reviewing an opponent's game film long ago became a crucial component of a football team's weekly preparation, and as technological advancements multiplied the ways in which video can be compartmentalized, the practice has become an even more valuable asset. However, the schemes, formations and plays a coach sees an upcoming opponent run on tape rarely represent that opponent's full arsenal. Film can be misleading -- a scary proposition for the men who rely on it to plot out their team's strategy for success.
"You're never for sure what you're going to get, but you really don't have much of a choice but to watch the game tape and look at what your opponents have done in similar situations against similar offenses and get your game plan together based on that," Houston offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen said. "If you don't have that to rely on, I don't know what else you're going to rely on."
One of the ways in which coaches attempt to counteract the unforeseen wrinkles an opponent regularly introduces into its attack is by turning inward. Many offensive and defensive coordinators contacted for this story considered self-scouting vital to their respective team's weekly preparation.
Holgorsen said he uses his gut to self-scout rather than the more common method of reviewing tape of his own team's previous outing, but it is effective either way. Entering last week's matchup against then-No. 25 Tulsa, Holgorsen combined what he felt about his team's tendencies with what he saw from watching film on Tulsa.
He knew Tulsa would try to blitz when his team operated in a certain formation. He also knew his team did not typically operate out of that formation frequently. So, rather than avoid using the formation altogether, Holgorsen opted to stay in it longer than usual. Better to bait the defense and know the source of the pressure ahead of time, he thought, than to have to guess when the blitz would come. In a 70-30 win, Houston tallied more points in a single game than it had since Aug. 31, 1991.
"Each week I try to change something up and give different looks and run things out of different sets," Holgorsen said, "which is pretty easy to do on my part."
Indeed, adding wrinkles of their own is another method coordinators use to combat their opponents' unpredictable schematic changes. In that regard, most coordinators claimed alterations are more easily made on offense.
No. 6 Southern California allows the least amount of points per game, as well as the second-fewest yards per game, in the nation. The Trojans have held eight of their 10 opponents to 10 points or less, an accomplishment defensive coordinator Nick Holt attributed to the base defense from which his team rarely deviates. It's not that he's opposed to adding new features into his schemes; he just believes defenses have a more difficult time doing so.
"Unfortunately, sometimes defense is so reactionary, as opposed to offenses can sometimes dictate the defense, even though you don't want that to happen," Holt said. "The offense knows the snap count; they know where the ball's going. So I think the offense does have the advantage in that. You don't want to let them have the advantage, but really, I think they do."
Chip Kelly, offensive coordinator for No. 24 Oregon, willingly adds weekly modifications into his team's attack, so long as the adaptations serve a purpose. "Don't change for the sake of change," he said. "Change if necessary."
Most coaches agree change almost always is necessary, especially because game film doesn't offer a complete preview and hours upon hours spent in front of a television screen can be rendered nearly pointless by one little unforeseen adjustment.
Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin said it the Terrapins didn't add anything new into their game plan against North Carolina. Rather, he said, Maryland's offense shifted its focus ever so slightly.
"We ran a running play against [North Carolina] over and over again that we had run earlier in the year, but we didn't major in it," Franklin said. "And it was giving them problems, so we kept doing it."