Playmakers

Tania Ganguli

obody quite knows what happened in the first quarter of Northwestern’s game against Iowa last year, but everyone has a theory.

On 3rd-and-2, the Wildcats appeared to gain first-down yardage.

But officials paused the game for a measurement. NU’s coaches thought ahead to the next play as the players waited for their signal. If the ball was short of a first down, head coach Randy Walker wanted to punt it. If the chains moved, Walker had a first-down play in mind.

That’s when the confusion began.

“I was on the sideline and coach said if we got it we’d run it in,” quarterback Brett Basanez said. “I didn’t hear him say, ‘If we got it.'”

But running back Jason Wright remembered it differently.

“Coaches thought we had a first down, we thought it was a 1st-and-10 play,” Wright said. “But it wasn’t. It was a 4th-and-inches.”

Out of the shotgun, Basanez threw a swing pass to Wright, who was quickly buried under several Iowa defenders behind the line of scrimmage. The play — which was designed for a first-down situation — resulted in a turnover at NU’s own 40.

After the game Walker said he had already switched his headphones to the defensive signal when the play started. By the time he realized what was happening, it was too late.

But the Cats don’t remember that play as a bad call; they remember it as a good play that didn’t work because of a missed block.

“Every play should work every time,” Wright said.

Theoretically that’s true, but some plays have a better chance than others.

Walker said everybody knows the right play on the Sunday after the game. But when the 25-second clock is running and the team is waiting for its instructions, the right play is often much harder to find.

25 seconds

Although 25 seconds seems like all the time the offense gets to choose and initiate a play, most of the work is done before the team hits the field Saturday.

Weeks in advance, offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar and the rest of the offensive coaches have to know how their team has responded to play calling during game action. Coaches spend hours each week watching the Cats on film, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses.

Dunbar and his staff then inputs the data into computers and organizes the scenarios so they can assess the ability of their players with respect to potential matchups.

Take 3rd-and-1. During a game, by the time the Cats are faced with a 3rd-and-1, the coaches already have narrowed their list of plays that would be effective against their opponent.

“On second down you’re thinking about third down, you’re never surprised,” Walker said.

For each yardage situation, the coaches have three to five pre-selected plays in mind. On 3rd-and-1, those choices usually will include two or three running plays and one or two passing plays.

In the NFL quarterbacks hear the plays called on a headset in their helmets. In college having a headset is illegal. Had Basanez been able to hear the coaches via radio at Iowa last season, some of the confusion might have been avoided.

Instead NU’s quarterbacks work with their coaches to create a hand-signal system in which certain hand motions correspond to certain plays.

Most of the memorizing has to be done by the quarterbacks and Jeff Genyk, NU’s running backs coach who runs the “signal system.” During the game Genyk signals to the quarterback, who then relays the message to his teammates.

The signals include 100 to 200 characters used to describe more than 90 plays. Each play includes several different words, which each correspond to a character in the signal system, similar to the signs used by managers in baseball.

So how do Basanez and backup Alexander Webb remember all of that?

“It’s just like a class,” Dunbar said. “You do it all the time and just learn it.”

Movin’ on down

Since the missed opportunity against Iowa, the Cats have taken several steps to avoid confusion in similar situations.

“Part of the plan is to help improve communication,” Dunbar said.

After last season Dunbar decided to move to the sideline where he can be in direct contact with the players, instead of sitting in the coaches’ booth located next to the press box where he had a full view of the field. From the booth Dunbar could better analyze the defensive scheme of the other team.

This year he leaves that up to wide receivers coach Howard Feggins and tight ends coach Jack Glowick who sit in the press box along with graduate assistant Josh Bius. Together they figure out the best attack for NU. Glowick, Feggins, Bius, Dunbar, Genyk and Walker are all connected by headsets. Walker receives two channels, one for offense and one for defense.

From the press box, the three offensive coaches radio down their suggestions, but it’s Dunbar who has the final say.

During the game the coaches have lists of plays for each situation. Using observations from earlier in the game and prior knowledge of the players on the field, they call a play that will give them a strategic advantage in matchups.

“You want to get Jason Wright up against a linebacker he can beat,” Dunbar said.

Sometimes getting those matchups is beyond the coach’s control. Against Ohio State Walker said he didn’t like any of the matchups he saw.

But ultimately getting the play to the athletes is the key part of the whole process, and the part most prone to snags. Having the offensive coordinator down on the field with the team helps the players know what he wants from them.

“When he’s up there you can talk to him on the headsets or the telephone,” running back Noah Herron said. “But it’s much easier to communicate and get the information when our play caller’s actually with us.”

It’s easier for the coaches too. This year Dunbar doesn’t just hear Basanez’s voice over the phone, he can look the quarterback in the eye to see how he feels about the defense he’s facing. He can run off the field with Basanez and discuss the last half of play.

“You get the chance to talk about their feelings with them after a particular series,” Genyk said. “If someone sees something about a blitz or what a corner’s doing, we can then make strategic decisions based on that.”

There are downsides to having the offensive coordinator on the sideline. On the field he can’t have the overall perspective that he gets from the booth. But for the Cats and Dunbar, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Losing the no-huddle

It’s 3rd-and-long and Basanez looks to the sideline. Genyk signs in a play with his baseball-like hand signals and Basanez looks down at his wristband, which has all 90 plays listed on it. The wristband has three pages, one of which is visible all of the time. Basanez just has to flip over the top page to see the rest of the plays.

The quarterback flips up his wristband, finds the play and goes into the huddle to alert his teammates to the action. They break from the huddle, set up and each player scopes out his mission.

But that’s not how it always was.

In 2000, Walker brought the no-huddle offense to NU. Instead of relaying the plays from Dunbar to Genyk to Basanez to the rest of the team, code words were grouped into short phrases and sent out to the whole team via shortened hand signals. It was up to each player to look to the sideline and pay attention to the coaches in order to understand their assignments.

For players the biggest advantage to the huddle is additional time. Without the huddle the offense was constantly moving and, at times, got off the field so fast that the defense hardly spent any time on the sideline.

With the huddle back, the Cats can focus on their assignments.

“The huddle is better for running backs,” Wright said. “I like to read the field, get a chance to catch my breath. It’s harder on the quarterbacks though; they have more responsibility.”

Depending on how the defense sets up, matchups change throughout the game. With the hud
dle the offense has additional time to figure out what needs to be done. But even though the huddle puts more pressure on the quarterback, Basanez doesn’t think twice about which system he likes better.

“Definitely the huddle,” he said.

And if he notices a change in the defense while on the field, he can alter the play to make up for the shift.

Bringing the huddle back means the Cats also have been able to expand their offense. It’s easier to signal in a variety of plays when the one guy who needs to understand the signals has a play guide strapped to his arm.

“When we were a no-huddle offense, our offense was pretty basic,” running back Noah Herron said. “Right now we change a lot of personnel, a lot of formations.”

All the players and coaches say the play calling is a simple process. Everyone has his assignments and knows what to do. But in the end it comes down to trust.

“Honestly, I never question the play calling,” Wright said. “No matter what he calls, we should be executing.”

And trust in the quarterback helps too.

“We respect Alexander and Brett,” Herron said. “I mean, they’re our quarterbacks.”

Because all the offense has is 25 seconds. Twenty-five seconds to listen, understand, get in formation and go. It takes weeks of preparation and hours of film, and there’s no time for second guessing.