Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Football's Subversive Side

How the 'Wildcat' infiltrated the pros' offenses and what it means for the game


Football, for allof its brute force and ferocity, is a game of guile and gamesmanship. This is especially true today, when the space in which the sport is played has been foreshortened by the size and speed of the athletes playing it, and outcomes are increasingly decided as much by the quality of a team's game plan as they are by the level of play. Football has essentially become hour-long sessions of high-speed, crash-helmet chess, and more fun to watch because of it. Even the biggest and most heavily favored juggernauts can on any given day be suddenly undone by a group of scrappy upstarts with a wealth of passion and a well-wrought stratagem: some riotous, rhythm-ruining array of timely defensive blitzing packages, or a stunningly inventive attack formation such as the new "Wildcat" offense.

The NFL, with its dizzying speeds and hard hitting—to say nothing of its preponderance of high-salaried stars—has long had a way of tempering the more fanciful, free-wheeling schemes of high school and college ball. And yet all that seemed to change last year, when the then-struggling Miami Dolphins overwhelmed the mighty New England Patriots in game three of the season with a sudden, whirlwind display of Wildcat wizardry. Six times in the course of that game, the Patriots' defenders suddenly found themselves standing opposite an odd-looking offensive alignment. Rather than the traditional front line of a guard, a tackle, and a tight end on either side of the center, the Dolphins now had a guard, two tackles and a tight end all stacked on one side. More disturbing still, standing a few yards behind the center, awaiting the snap in the quarterback's traditional "shotgun" position, were two running backs, the dual run-and-pass threat of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. As for the Dolphins' quarterback, Chad Pennington, he was positioned up on the overstacked side of the line, just outside the tight end, now an entirely misplaced and therefore unknown proposition.

This is the most subversive, the nearly mutinous aspect of the Wildcat, and the very essence of its explosive potential: the way in which it wholly bypasses the quarterback, the traditional pillar and field general of the offense. Among the things that a defense likes to see when an offense lines up opposite them before the start of play is the quarterback at his traditional post, either directly under center or a few yards behind center in the "shotgun." This gives the defense an edge, some would say an 11-on-10 advantage. Because, unless the quarterback is that exceptional dual run-or-pass threat in the mold of Vince Young or Michael Vick, or the 2008 champion University of Florida's Tim Tebow, then a defense can focus less on him and more on the action that he, through either a hand-off or a pass, is about to set in motion.

The most fixed figure in an offense, the middleman, the interlocutor of each play, the quarterback is the guy through whom a defense—via the lean of his body or the direction of his gaze—often gets the best fix on where a play is going. By removing the quarterback from his predictable hand-off, passing-machine role and enfolding him into the larger offensive mix, the Wildcat makes him one more variable for the defense to consider, and thus neutralizes their tacit one-man edge. The Wildcat is, in effect, a classic instance of eliminating the middleman and cutting, or snapping, directly to the chase. That could be a straight run behind a phalanx of blockers, or a hand-off to another back or roving flanker or "wingback," who was set in motion behind the line before the snap. Or it could be just pulling up and passing the ball down field to an open receiver, possibly even to the quarterback—a dizzying array of options that tends to slow a defense down, give them pause.

In chess, even in speed chess, one has time to ponder a response to a new formation. In football, even the slightest hesitation equals loss. In fact, before the Patriots' vaunted defense was able to get a read on what was going on around them that day, the Dolphins would score four touchdowns with the Wildcat (three rushing and one on a pass from Brown), abruptly ending the Patriots' 21-game regular-season winning streak with a 38-13 drubbing. Over the next 11 games, the Dolphins went on to average seven yards per play from the "Wildcat" and qualified for the playoffs. They have since acquired West Virginia's multitasking quarterback, Pat White, in the draft, a potentially lethal move that has teams around the league including the Eagles (with the newly acquired Michael Vick), the Baltimore Ravens, the Atlanta Falcons, the New York Jets and even the New England Patriots dreaming up Wildcat packages of their own.

There's something at once sleekly high-tech and decidedly throwback, nearly sandlot, about the Wildcat: an elaborate and well-honed version of that basic backyard-pick-up-game ethos of "let's just get as many of the best players on the field as we can and then wing it." Winging it is, after all, increasingly difficult to do within any organized field of endeavor. But this is especially so within the parameters of a football field. While nuns may not fret their convent's narrow room, as Wordsworth wrote in his famous sonnet about the paradoxically liberating powers of the sonnet form's strictures on the imagination, offensive coordinators are forever scratching about for ways to pry open and fly the confines of a 100-yard gridiron.

In this regard, the Wildcat is an inspired bit of football poetry, affirming as it does that there are still an infinite number of new ways to re-imagine inherently finite spaces. And when one considers the growing number of big, fast, multidimensional, run-and-throw style quarterbacks that high schools and colleges are now churning out—to the extent that some pro scouts are lamenting the imminent extinction of the classic drop-back, field-general style—then the Wildcat formation begins to look less like a passing fancy and more like something permanent.

Still, for all the talk of the Wildcat representing football's future, it is, in fact, a direct derivative (some would say a near carbon copy) of an early offense formation known as the "Single-wing," which might well have faded into extinction if not for a few high school coaches who kept it percolating in their playbooks. One of the game's very first attempts to fly its own inherent confines, the "Single-wing" was the brainchild of the University of Pittsburgh's Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, the father of modern football, and it was advanced by football inventors like Notre Dame's Knute Rockne, and Warner's protégé at Pitt, Jock Sutherland.

After the ploddingly crushing rugby-like scrums and somewhat oxymoronically named "Flying Wedges" of yore were outlawed, in the interest of safety, back in 1905, Warner took advantage of new rules allowing, among other things, the forward pass and arrived at a scheme that should by now sound familiar: an unbalanced offensive line with a quarterback positioned just behind one of the strong-side tackles, a pair of running backs waiting in the quarterback's shotgun position to take the snap from center, and off beyond the strong-side end, the roving, multipurpose "wingback," who gave the Single-wing its name. The best athletes of their day, wingbacks are now the stuff of football legend: George Gipp of Notre Dame, Michigan's Tom Harmon, Nile Kinnick of Iowa and Western Reserve's Steve Belichick, father of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

The Single-wing would dominate college football right up through the 1940s and then gradually yield to newer formations. As the forward pass and freer substitution rules became ever more prominent in pro offenses of the 1950s and '60s, formations began to accommodate and codify the quarterback's emergent field-general stature, placing him directly under center and the running backs behind him in a "T" or "I" formation. The "T" and the "I" soon morphed into the "Wishbone" and from there into more widely dispersed formations, designed to make use of every inch and angle of football's blank page—offenses that, in name alone, "Flexbone," "Triple Option," "Veer," and "Spread," suggest the evolution of some huge, flightless bird struggling to free itself from the confines of its own proscribed shell.

College and high school have long been the Petri dishes of football innovation, and it is there that the Wildcat's recent emergence can be traced. In a 1998 article for Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director magazine, a high-school football coach and Yale graduate named Hugh Wyatt wrote of a direct-snap, single-wing style formation that he named the "Wildcat," after the mascot of the school where he coached at the time. Seven years later, Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator for the Arkansas Razorbacks, implemented a single-wing style package that he'd used successfully coaching high school ball. Conspiring with Razorback running back coach Danny Nutt to get their best players on the field at the same time, he put the multidimensional running back Darren McFadden, now of the Oakland Raiders, in the quarterback position and fellow running back Felix Jones at wingback. The Wildcat was soon spreading like wildfire.

An estimated 80% of high school and college teams are expected to be featuring the formation this season, including, of course, Arkansas, Tulsa (where Gus Malzahn now coaches) and Ole Miss (coached by Danny Nutt's brother Houston), as well as Alabama, Michigan State and Minnesota. And when Gus Malzahn's replacement at Arkansas, David Lee, moved on to become the quarterback coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2008, the Wildcat was soon baring its claws in the pros—appearing as a bizarre and uncontainable creature to a stunned New England Patriot defense but wholly recognizable to an astute football historian like Bill Belichick.

"Call it what you want," the Patriots' coach would tell Sports Illustrated after the Patriots-Dolphins game. "But that's single-wing style football."

Corrections & Amplifications: Football star Steve Belichick attended Western Reserve University, a forerunner of today's Case Western Reserve University. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said he played for Case Western Reserve.

Collegiate Images/Getty Images

George Gipp of Notre Dame, shown here in 1920, was one of the multipurpose ‘wingbacks’ who gave the early ‘Single-wing’ formation its name.

Wall Street Journal
1211 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

High school athletes of the week: Sept. 14

Branford's John Perry (Front)

With teammates (left to right) Willie Clemons,

Billy Peck, Matt Lambert, and Joey Fraddosio.

By Cliff Olsen
Published: Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 14, 2009 at 12:30 a.m.

John Perry had a huge a game in Branford’s 28-13 win over Trenton on Friday night.

It is the way Branford coach Bill Wiles said he has been expecting Perry to play for two years.

Out of the Buccaneers single-wing attack, the senior carried the ball 26 times for 314 yards and scored four touchdowns. He also caught one pass for 19 yards.

How big of a part did Perry play in Branford’s offense?

He accounted for 333 yards of the Bucs’ 384 yards of offense and scored all of his team’s touchdowns.

“It was absolutely his best performance in two years, he played with tremendous effort,” Wiles said. “I was most proud of how physical he played.”

Perry also played defense for the Bucs (2-0) and made nine tackles from his safety position.

“He was so exhausted, but he played through that,” Wiles said. “He is a good kid and he has come a long way.”

Perry was the difference in a game that was tied at halftime. His 50-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter provided the final margin and gave Branford its second-straight win over the Tigers.

“It is a team game. I’m proud of our team. John just happened to be the beneficiary Friday night of making the most of his touches,” Wiles said. “Maybe he needed a game like that to show him what he can be.”


The Gainesville Sun
P.O. Box 147147
Gainesville, FL 32614-7147


Monday, September 14, 2009

Holley stuns O-A 16-7

Hawks now 2-0 after a winless 2008 season
By Bill Bruton Jr.
Monday, September 14, 2009 10:39 PM EDT

HOLLEY -- The Holley football team did not win a game a year ago.

What a difference a year makes.

On Saturday, the Hawks stunned Oakfield-Alabama, winning 16-7 over a Hornets team that went unbeaten in the Genesee Region League a year ago in compiling a 9-1 record.

Holley got on the board first on a safety when O-A had a bad snap on a punt.

O-A scored next on a 4-yard touchdown run by Jason Stanley and a Jon Fisher extra point.

The Hornets had a chance to take a 10-2 halftime lead with two seconds left in the first half, but Holley's C.J. Fallato blocked the field goal attempt.

Holley took the lead in the third quarter when Tyler Winter scored on a 30-yard run. Cadzish Norford ran in the two-point conversion, carrying O-A defenders to do it.

Holley put the game away on a 7-yard TD run by Sean Baylor in the fourth quarter.

Quarterback Guy Hills had 100 rushing yards for Holley (2-0) and also made two fumble recoveries on defense.

Preston Lawrence had an interception as Holley won the turnover battle 3-0.

Baylor finished with 16 tackles.

O-A drops to 1-1.
The Daily News
Batavia Newspapers Corporation
2 Apollo Drive,Batavia, NY 14020

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Auburn's Single-Wing Scores 4 Times

Auburn offense comes alive in victory

ANDY BITTER - Special to the Sun Herald

AUBURN, Ala. — Three to two this wasn’t.

A year after an ugly, low-scoring win at Mississippi State signaled that everything wasn’t right with Auburn’s offense, a runaway 49-24 victory against those same Bulldogs on Saturday night suggests everything might be better than expected.

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s fast-paced attack racked up 589 yards against Mississippi State in its SEC opener before 85,269 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, surpassing the 556 it gained in the season opener against Louisiana Tech.

“It’s very innovative and it’s fun to watch,” said Gene Chizik, who improved to 2-0 as Auburn’s head coach. “From a defensive background, it’s problematic in a lot of ways.”

Auburn (1-0 SEC) has won 51 consecutive games when scoring 30 or more points, a streak dating back to 1996. The 49 points were the most Auburn has scored in an SEC game since beating Kentucky 49-27 in 2005.

The Tigers ran for 390 yards Saturday. Ben Tate, despite sitting out the first quarter, ran for 157 yards and a touchdown and Onterio McCalebb added 114 yards and a score. It marked the first time in Auburn history two players rushed for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games.

Malzahn thought this kind of success might be possible heading into the season.

“We knew that our front five, we knew that they were a solid offensive line, and we knew we had some backs who could be change of pace,” he said. “And so far they’ve really bought in to what we’re doing.”

Quarterback Chris Todd continued to find his comfort zone in the offense, going 10-for-23 for 186 yards. He developed a solid rapport with receiver Darvin Adams, who shook off a few early drops to catch five passes for 116 yards, both career highs.

And Wildcat triggerman Kodi Burns, who moved from quarterback to receiver in August, continued to evolve into the multi-use threat coaches envisioned. He ran for three 1-yard scores out of the single-wing formation and threw a confused Bulldogs defense for a loop in the third quarter, when he pulled up after a play-action fake out of the Wildcat and lobbed a touchdown pass to a wide open Philip Lutzenkirchen.
“I really didn’t know what to expect when (the position change) first happened,” Burns said. “It was pretty much a disappointment, but it’s this year. I’ve just got to go out there and do what I can for my team.”

Auburn went into halftime with a 28-17 halftime lead that could have been bigger if not for a pair of special teams miscues. Clinton Durst shanked a punt midway through the second quarter, leading to a Mississippi State field goal.

On the next possession, Durst had his punt blocked by Patrick Hanrahan. Robert Elliott picked it up and rumbled 10 yards for the score, giving the Bulldogs their first lead of the game at 17-14 with 4:44 remaining before the half.

The Tigers answered right back in lightning quick fashion. McCalebb took an option pitch from Todd and burst up the left sideline, running past the defense for a 43-yard touchdown that made it 21-14 Auburn.

After a Bulldogs three-and-out, the Tigers raced down the field, moving 78 yards in eight plays. Todd completed three passes to Adams for 69 yards, the last getting the ball to the Bulldogs’ 1. Burns punched it in with 16 seconds left before halftime to give Auburn an 11-point lead.

The Tigers out-gained the Bullodgs 314-171 in the first half, but put things away after the break. Burns’ touchdown pass to Lutzenkirchen made it an 18-point game with 3:52 left in the third quarter. Tate broke a 35-yard run up the sideline for a touchdown 2 1/2 minutes later to give Auburn a 42-17 lead.

“This game is a game of momentum swings,” Chizik said. “When the offense had a chance to step up and get some momentum back, they did. When the defense had a chance to step up and get some three-and-outs, it did. That’s why I was proud to see our team step up and answer the bell on all sides.”

Auburn’s defense limited Bulldogs quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyson Lee to only 130 passing yards. The Tigers had two interceptions, one by defensive end Antonio Coleman, who returned it 20 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Overall, the Tigers held Mississippi State to 126 yards and only seven points in the second half.

“It’s crazy,” Coleman said. “We were giving up all the points in the second half last year. We focus on finishing now. That’s what we do.”

Sun Hereald
205 DeBuys Road
Gulfport, MS 39507


Gladiators keep rolling on

Offense unstoppable in road win at L’Anse

By Paul Peterson - For the Gazette
POSTED: September 12, 2009

L'ANSE - Don't look now, but the Ontonagon High football team is halfway to gaining a postseason spot in the playoffs.

The Gladiators moved their record to 3-0 on the young season with a 44-22 throttling of L'Anse Friday night in nonconference action.

Ontonagon's new single wing offense moved at will on a warm evening at Meadowbrook Field - piling up 339 yards rushing and another 106 through the air.

"We couldn't stop them," L'Anse skipper Mark Leaf said afterward. "They run that Single Wing offense very well ... and they have some dangerous weapons on offense."

Senior tailback Mike Schmaus did most of the damage for the Gladiators, scoring three times and accounting for 145 rushing yards. He also accounted for most of his team's passing yardage

"He (Schmaus) is the ideal back to have in our offense. He's a U.P. dash champion and he can get to the outside real quickly," said OAHS first-year coach Dave Linczeski. "He's also throwing the ball very well."

Schmaus marched his team 66 yards on the opening drive of the game, mixing his own runs with hand-offs to quick tailbacks T.J. Huotari and Nick Soumis.

Schmaus tallied on a three-yard run and also tacked on the two-point conversion with a run for an 8-0 score.

That swelled to 16-0 later in the quarter as Schmaus ran 10 yards to pay dirt and passed to Soumis for the two-pointer.

The Hornets bounced back with a nice scoring drive of their own in the second frame. Tailback Parker Miller capped the drive with a 5-yard run and also added the two-pointer for a 16-8 reading.

Ontonagon, looking for its first winning season since 1996, answered back before the half ended on an 11-yard run by Huotari. Soumis ran in the two-pointer for a 24-8 halftime score.

The Purple Gang marched to the Ontonagon 31 early in the third quarter before running out of downs.

The Glads then embarked on a 17-play, 69-yard drive and ate up nearly nine minutes of the clock to erase any doubts about the outcome. Huotari covered the final yard and when Schmaus passed to Cameron Menigoz, it was 32-8.

Schmaus added a 19-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter to up the count to 38-8.

Miller scored on a ten-yard run for the Hornets not long after that to make it 38-14, but a 47-yard TD scamper from Dylan Kirkley of OAHS nullified that.

Dennis Anderson caught a 61-yard scoring pass from Jake Jaeger late in the contest and the two hooked up on the two-point PAT for the final points.

Leaf said he was encouraged by Jaeger's 10-of-13 passing performance for 143 yards.

"We'll need that kind of passing to open up the running game," he pointed out. "It was one of the encouraging things tonight."

Ontonagon travels to Crystal Falls to face rugged Forest Park next Friday for a Great Western Conference game.

"The kids are excited about the challenge of playing a team like (the Trojans)," Linczeski said.

L'Anse, now 1-2, goes to Hancock next Saturday for a WestPAC meeting.

Fact Box
Ontonagon 16 8 14 6 - 44
L'Anse 0 8 0 14 - 22

First quarter

ON - Schmaus 3 run (Schmaus run)

ON - Schmaus 10 run (Soumis pass from Schmaus)

Second quarter

LA - Miller 5 run (Miller run)

ON - Huotari 11 run (Schmaus run)

Third quarter

ON -Huotari 3 run (Soumis run)

ON - Schmaus 19 run (pass failed)

Fourth quarter

LA - Miller 10 run (pass failed)

ON - Kirkley 47 run (pass failed)

LA - Anderson 61 pass from Jaeger (Anderson pass from Jaeger)


First downs: Ontonagon 17; L'Anse 9

Rushing: Ontonagon 45-339 (Schmaus 18-145, Soumis 6-78, Kirkley 3-54, Huotari 14-38; L'Anse 25-154 (Miller 9-84, Anderson 13-63

Passing: Ontonagon, Schmaus 3-6-0-88; L'Anse 10-13-143

Receiving: Ontonagon, Menigoz 2-87; L'Anse Anderson 4-72

The Daily Mining Gazette
P.O. Box 368
Houghton, MI 49931