Inside the Playbook (Gameday)

Matt Baker

With Northwestern’s chances for victory resting on an element of surprise to its plays, it’s no secret that the team’s playbook is, well, top-secret.

So much so that quarterback C.J. Bacher cringed at the thought of sharing a sample play call. So much so that the team keeps its copies locked up in the athletic department during the off-season.

“So much so,” offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said, “that I’m not even going to talk about it.”

But you can’t ignore the tome that contains football’s DNA, transforming countless configurations of linemen and linebackers into a few hundred tangible results that make up the runs, passes, blitzes and zones of the Wildcats.

To most NU students, flipping through page after page of Xs and Os would look like gobbledygook – like an English major thumbing through a biomedical textbook.

“It’s hard to explain,” junior wide receiver Jeff Yarbrough said. “You’d have to take Football 101.”

But to Bacher and the rest of the Cats, the playbook is the lifeblood of the game.

Its schemes and signals have the power to determine much more than whether the offense rushes left or right.

Understanding its concepts from start to finish – and adjusting to wrinkles on the fly – can mean the difference between a botched play or a breakaway run, a seven-yard sack or a 78-yard touchdown, a momentous win or an agonizing defeat.


When freshmen receive their copy of the playbook at summer training camp in Kenosha, Wisc., the experience of transitioning from high school plays to a Big Ten program can be daunting.

“As a freshman coming in, it’s very tough to learn the playbook … just like as a freshman coming to Northwestern, it’s way different from high school,” Yarbrough said. “But once you grow up and become a junior, stuff settles in. It becomes like clockwork.”

To acclimate new players to NU’s system, coaches break down the playbook into sections, McGee said. Players receive a new set of plays each morning that they will practice the rest of the day. The next day, it’s a different set of plays and schemes.

Because most of NU’s players have been around the game for years, the plays themselves are relatively easy to learn, defensive back Dan Dixon said.

The senior began his college career at Cornell before transferring to Oklahoma and then to NU, so he’s learned three different sets of plays. The playbooks themselves varied little, he said.

The steepest part of the learning curve has been the terminology used to describe the plays. A defensive scheme at Oklahoma might be called two-Tampa, while NU could call the same concept two-squat.

“Football is football; it’s all the same wherever you go,” freshman superback Drake Dunsmore said. “It’s just learning the terminology. It’s no different from studying for a test.”

So to grasp NU’s unique lexicon, players treat the playbook like a textbook, cramming every night to memorize the new vocabulary needed for the next day’s lessons.

“When you’re not out practicing on the field, you’re in your playbook – or sleeping,” Dunsmore said.


While Dixon reiterated the importance of following the terminology, he said it’s not necessary to memorize every route in every formation. Knowing the exact location where a teammate ends the play is like knowing a chemical formula; it doesn’t do much good unless you can take those concepts and apply them to practical situations.

“If you come in trying to memorize what’s my position, it’s just like school – you’re just memorizing,” Dixon said. “But if you understand the concepts, like why you’re doing something, it typically makes it easier.

“Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can kind of understand conceptually what everyone else is doing, and that usually tells you what you need to do.”

Getting players to understand those concepts is one of the goals of summer camp, McGee said. Coaches count on players to come away from Kenosha with a working knowledge of the playbook and a foundation they can build on during the season.

During a game week, the staff first chooses which plays to work on during practice. Those are the plays that will be available on Saturday. They spend the days leading up to the game running through scenarios like scientists in labs to determine which plays and schemes will work best in each condition.

“The game’s pretty much scripted,” McGee said. “When we’re in a 3rd-down-and-medium situation, well, there are already three plays on the list to call. We’ve already thought through this, and we’ve decided that this is the right play for that situation. If that situation comes up and they’re running what we’ve studied, then it’s easy.”


While understanding Xs and Os in diagrams and memorizing definitions is part of the sport, football isn’t a multiple-choice quiz played out on paper.

The real test comes during games in front of thousands of fans.

In NU’s 48-41 win at Michigan State last week, the Cats’ careful preparation and execution contributed to acing one part of the exam during the third quarter.

Three minutes into the second half, NU faced 3rd and 16 from its own 22. Based on what he had seen reviewing film earlier in the week, McGee already had a set of plays ready to call.

“When that situation came up, I just said, ‘All right, this is the play we have scripted for this situation,'” McGee said. “So this is the one we sent out there, and those kids did a good job.”

The offense lined up with three wide receivers on the right side, and McGee decided which play to call based on the Cats’ pre-game plan and what adjustments the Spartans made in the first half. He called in a simple pattern: four receivers on straight vertical routes.

“It was open earlier during the game,” Yarbrough said. “(Bacher) threw it to Kim (Thompson), and he had a big play then. It was open all day … Coach McGee made a good play, so we called it again.”

Bacher dropped back to throw. He saw his first option, Yarbrough, wide-open, streaking between the safeties. The offensive line gave Bacher time to fire a spiral to Yarbrough, who broke a tackle, picked up a key block from Thompson and raced down the field.

“I just got the ball and saw the end zone and took off,” Yarbrough said. “I didn’t see anybody. I just saw the end zone.”


NU passed the test.


Although the playbook’s secrecy has given it the aura of a sacred text, players and coaches say it’s not the holy grail of college football.

For starters, the team doesn’t just have one unchanging playbook throughout the entire season. The staff collects every copy of the playbook at preseason camp and locks them away when the team returns to Evanston.

During a game week, coaches hand out individualized game plans complete with plays and tip sheets targeted specifically to the upcoming opponent.

For each game, special teams has about five or six different kickoff returns from the 10 to 12 in the master playbook.

“Anything you can think of, that’s what we’ve got,” redshirt freshman kick returner Stephen Simmons said. “We’ve got all kinds of variations – a little new something every week, different things we do. We might have somebody go to the left one time, go to the right the next time. Just small things that might confuse somebody.”

The offense’s possibilities are whittled down to a selection of about 80 plays – half run, half pass – and new wrinkles are added to old plays based on what scouts and coaches have seen about the other team’s defense.

After McGee sends down his play selection, the offense has room to adjust. Bacher said he calls an audible a few times a game, with options ranging from moving the running back from the right to the left to selecting a completely different play.

But when the center finally snaps the ball, the Xs and Os become mere guidelines rather than infallible routes etche
d into the turf.

“When you’re out there, anything goes,” Yarbrough said. “You might have to make a slight adjustment during a play. The route might have to be changed a little extra, but at the end of the day, it’s about who can make the play.”

Bacher estimates that about 90 percent of plays unfold as they’re shown in the playbook. The other 10 percent comes from reads during the play – picking up blitzes, throwing open-field blocks or swarming to the ball-carrier.

Even McGee said that big plays come from a blend of execution and improvisation rather than following the exact routes and movements of the diagrams scribbled into the playbook.

“You on the sidelines cannot win the football game by the plays you’re calling,” McGee said. “You have to make sure your kids are in the right mind frame and feeling good about themselves and that they’re able to perform at their maximum effort.

“A lot of times when you get in that mode, you can call any play you want. The kids are just going to make something happen when they’re playing at an extreme level. It’s not about the plays. It’s never about the plays that you run.”


The Cats’ offense showed its mastery of adapting to the defense early in the fourth quarter against Michigan State.

NU faced 3rd and Goal from the 1, and McGee knew which play to call from the dozens that were prepared for the game. His selection didn’t work – at first.

Bacher dropped back and looked to the right. His primary receivers were covered in the end zone. The pocket began to collapse.

At the start of the play, junior wide receiver Ross Lane was lined up on the left side as a secondary option. As the play ensued and the defensive pressure began to mount, Lane cut to the right in the end zone and ran into Bacher’s line of sight. Improvisation based on understanding the system and what the opponent allowed.

“The whole defense shifted over, so he was open in the back of the end zone,” Bacher said.

Lane separated himself from the defense and ran unguarded down the back line. He raised his arm in the air to try to get Bacher’s attention.

“I actually yelled C.J.’s name, and he said he heard me,” Lane said after the game. “He told me never to do that if I was covered again.”

Bacher snapped his head to the left and lobbed a pass to his receiver in the back of the end zone. Lane jumped into the air and came down with the ball.


An in-game adjustment and countless hours of studying the playbook paid off.

Another exam aced.

Reach Matt Baker at [email protected]