Washington Huskies' head coach Steve Sarkisian is among the coaches that script the first 15-20 plays of a game on offense.
With a complete remodeling of their aging football facilities, the Washington Huskies showed that the overhaul didn't end when construction crews vacated Montlake. With the new-look Huskies 38-6 dismantling of No. 19 Boise State on Saturday night, it appears that Steve Sarkisian may finally have the stagnant Huskies headed back towards a once familiar spot in the upper echelon of college football.
Washington showed off a new-look, up tempo offense against the Broncos that gave the Huskies their most impressive win in years. How did they manage to dominate a team that edged them out in last year's MAACO Las Vegas Bowl? For starters, they imposed their will early and often on the Broncos' defense by having a solid game plan in place and executing it to perfection.
The Huskies have their best group of skill-position players in a decade, and head coach Steve Sarkisian built a game plan around his team's strengths. Any coach knows the right way to put the best product on the field is to utilize the talent you have in the proper ways, and Sarkisian did that from the opening kickoff.
No one used his team's talent better than the late, great Bill Walsh. Walsh, known as the father of the "West Coast Offense," is a legend across the football landscape. Along with his idea of a more horizontal passing game that relied heavily on short, quick-timing passes, Walsh developed the idea of scripting a number of plays to start each game in order to set the tone for the entire contest.
The Huskies' fifth year head coach is one of a handful of major college coaches that still open games with a scripted set of plays. As told to Adam Jude of the Seattle Times,"Sark said he plans to continue to script the first 15 plays of the game, though there is flexibility in that, depending on the situation, what is working, what isn’t."
With the unlimited variables that can alter the course of a game, why do coaches bother scripting plays? More importantly, does it really work? There are a number of reasons coaches utilize the practice.
Setting the Tone
With technology and advanced scouting, teams usually have a pretty good idea of how their opponent will attack them come game time. Despite facing a defense that knows what to expect, coaches and offensive coordinators want to set the tone early on in order to make adjustments later in the game.
Saturday's game didn't start out how Sarkisian envisioned it. Huskies' quarterback Keith Price was intercepted on the second play of the game, but Sarkisian didn't flinch. After a short run by running back Bishop Sankey, Sarkisian went right back to Price and threw the ball six of the next eight plays. Aside from a one-yard completion to wide receiver John Ross, Price connected for gains of eight, nine, eight, 12 and 11 yards over the next eight plays.
The point behind a pass-heavy set of scripted plays early on was to instill confidence in Price after a dismal 2012 season. The Huskies know what they have in RB Bishop Sankey and a standout group of pass-catchers. They didn't know what to expect from Price, who has had an up-and-down career.
With Price connecting on a barrage of short, quick-hitting passes early, Boise State had to deal with more than just a strong rushing attack from the Huskies. The Broncos had to adjust to the Huskies' new, up-tempo offense and face an entirely different Keith Price than they faced in the 2012 season.
By sticking to the pass-heavy script, Sarkisian unleashed Price and the quick-hitting passing offense, leaving the Broncos off-balance early in the game. While the Huskies didn't put up a lot of points in the first half, they did rack up a lot of yards and set themselves up for a big second half.
While you can prepare for weeks and envision the execution down to the last detail, preparing for the variables in a football game is futile.
- The first scripted play calls for an easy eight-yard dig route by the tight end, with the idea that you will be left with a 2nd-and-short situation.
- Play two is a quick dive out of a power-I formation with three offset tight ends to the strong side.
If things go according to plan, this idea should work most of the time. But what is the alternative should something like a personal foul penalty disrupt the plan and leave the offense in a 2nd-and-17?
Some coaches will have situation replacements in case of a sack, penalty or lack of execution. Others will stick to the script no matter the outcome in order to set the offense up for later in the game.
- A coach can skip to play three of the script, which calls for a quick slant from the weak side.
- He can call for a new play designed to safely gain eight-12 yards in order to have a manageable third down.
Sticking to the Script
If a coach wants to stick with the plan to run a quick-hitting dive to the strong side, it may be for a couple of reasons.
- Lining up in a power formation with three offset tight ends could catch the defense with the wrong personnel on the field. If there is a cornerback or safety lined up over one of the tight ends, the play might work to perfection based on the mismatch.
- The defense might run a stunt or get enough penetration to disrupt the play in the backfield. It sets the offense up for success later in the game. If the defense sees the same formation again, they could counter with a goal-line package after seeing a smaller defensive back get blown off the ball by a tight end earlier in the game. If that happens, the offense could motion a tight end or run a flood route with a defensive end tasked with covering a faster tight end.
Teams utilize strategies like this every game, and it becomes a chess match between the offensive and defensive coaches.
In the second half, the Huskies unleashed a perfect mix of play calls that left the Broncos guessing all night. After expecting Bishop Sankey to be their biggest problem, Keith Price made them pay with a 324-yard performance through the air. Of course, Sankey still had a tremendous game with a 161 yards on 25 carries.
By scripting the first 15 plays of the game, the Washington coaches set up a variety of weapons to be unleashed later in the game. Keith Price found his 2011 form, and after carving up the Broncos early with a crisp passing attack, the Huskies had the Broncos off-balance.
Sarkisian stuck with the plan, and it paid off in a big way. With a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal in 2013, Sarkisian should have the Huskies primed for a big season ahead.
That is, if things go according to the script.