With the press of a computer key, the film begins to roll, and
images from last season's Fiesta Bowl flicker on the screen.
Sitting in the darkness of the Tennessee film room, Randy
Sanders is looking for one particular play from that cool desert
night, the one play Florida State's defense could not
consistently stop. For five minutes the Volunteers' offensive
coordinator searches. Finally, after hitting a few more keys on
the computer, Sanders finds what he's looking for. He pauses the
grainy image, then carefully guides his laser pointer until its
red dot sits squarely between the 2 and the 5 on the
burnt-orange jersey of tailback Travis Stephens, his image
frozen just as he is lining up.
This is an article from the Aug. 16, 1999 issue
"Here's our counter-gap running play," says the 33-year-old
Sanders as he hits another key, setting the play in motion on
the screen. "Travis hits the hole hard, gets a beautiful block
from [right guard] Cosey Coleman, who makes the block because of
the great angle he has, and Travis is off into the secondary.
This is just how we practice it."
"There were a few occasions in the game when the counter gap
bailed us out," adds coach Phillip Fulmer. "Once, late in the
game, it got us away from our goal line. Another time it
sustained a key drive. It's not a complicated play, but all year
that play was one of our best."
One play. That's often the difference between winning and
losing, and in 1999 it will most likely determine who ends up
No. 1. In a season in which the race for the national
championship is as wide open as the Dakotas--"Any of the top 20
could sneak in there and win the national title," says Florida
State coach Bobby Bowden--one play could mean the difference
between dancing in New Orleans on Jan. 4 and a berth in the
Alamo Bowl. There's no doubt that one play saved Tennessee's
season last year, and we're not talking about the gift from god
that came in the form of a fumble by Arkansas quarterback Clint
Stoerner late in the fourth quarter on Nov. 14. The play that
propelled the Volunteers to the national title was the counter
gap, a quick-hitting misdirection play that keeps defenses
honest and often produces long runs. In the Fiesta Bowl alone
Tennessee ran the play 12 times--the most of any of the 195
offensive plays in its playbook. On those 12 counter gaps, the
Volunteers' netted 51 yards against the nation's top-ranked
defense. "Big plays don't come about because of luck," says
Sanders. "They happen because of practice."
Indeed, every good team has a play that it practices more often
and works on more intently than any of the others, spending
extra time every day trying to get it as exquisitely tuned as a
Stradivarius. On Saturdays this play, when run to perfection,
can change a game and can even transform a decent team into a
Here's a peek into the playbooks of several contenders and an
examination of a bread-and-butter play from each. If you watch
these teams this fall, you'll see these plays. And because these
schools are as likely as anybody to win it all this season,
don't be surprised to see at least one of these plays again on
TEXAS A&M'S 54 BLOOD BLUE
Over the last 15 years Texas A&M has had more linebackers
selected in the NFL draft (18) than any other school. This is no
accident. Almost every year one or two of the nation's top high
school linebackers sign with the Aggies, for one main reason:
A&M's aggressive defensive scheme allows linebackers to run,
roam and run some more. "Our 3-4 defense succeeds or fails based
on our linebackers' ability to make plays," says Aggies
defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.
Because of its great speed at the position, A&M, which finished
10th in the country last season in total defense (289.3 yards
allowed per game), blitzes with ruthless efficiency. The Aggies'
most successful blitz is called 54 Blood Blue. With all four
linebackers rushing, the only ways an offense can beat this play
is if the quarterback can get rid of the ball in less than two
seconds or if--and this is a monumental if--the line and the
backs can somehow pick up all the blitzers. "The quarterback has
to make a quick read and release, and throw accurately," says
Hankwitz. "If we disguise it well, it's very difficult to defend
because our linebackers are so tough to block."
Texas A&M has been running 54 Blood Blue ever since R.C. Slocum
became coach in 1989. The Aggies will employ it four or five
times a game, mainly in passing situations. According to A&M, in
the last two years quarterbacks have completed just 27% of their
attempts against this blitz, and last season the Aggies achieved
what Hankwitz calls a "desirable outcome" 75% of the time when
they ran 54 Blood Blue. "We set goals on how many yards we can
give up on a given play, based on the situation, and still
consider it a success," says Hankwitz. "To have a play be
successful three out of four times is very rare."
USC'S RED RIGHT 22 Z HOOK
When Hue Jackson looks at a clean chalkboard, he sees the same
thing a painter sees when he gazes at a blank canvas:
possibilities. That's what makes Jackson, USC's offensive
coordinator, the perfect person to teach the West Coast offense
to Trojans sophomore quarterback Carson Palmer. "In our offense
the quarterback has to make reads and anticipate things that
aren't visually there," says Jackson. "I've coached both Jake
Plummer [now with the Arizona Cardinals] and Pat Barnes [now
with the Oakland Raiders], and Carson is the best player at
running this offense that I've ever been around."
The core play of USC's West Coast offense--and the most
difficult to stop when the quarterback makes the proper
reads--is called 22 Z Hook. Last season the Trojans completed 18
of 23 passes for 250 yards when they ran this play. USC burned
Cal with it for a 61-yard gain on Oct. 10. Four weeks later the
play was good for a 54-yard strike against Stanford. As
difficult as the 22 Z Hook is to defend, it's equally difficult
to execute; it's based not only on the timing between the
quarterback and the wide receivers, but also on the entire
offense's reacting to what the defense has called. But if the
offense does its job, there's very little that can be done to
stop the play.
"The primary receiver must get good depth, the strongside back
needs to stretch the underneath coverage, and the tight end must
move to the far tackle box then slide back," says Jackson. "The
quarterback makes his reads in a progression, starting with the
wide receiver, then the back, then the tight end. The success of
the play is really on the quarterback's shoulders. He has to
make the right read and the right throw."
NEBRASKA'S 34 TRAP
It is one of the simplest plays in college football: a quick
handoff to the fullback straight into the belly of the defense.
It's so rudimentary that a kindergartner could diagram it in
finger paint. Yet this little play, more commonly known as the
fullback trap, has been one of Nebraska's most powerful weapons
for the last 37 years. Consider these numbers: Over the past
three seasons the Cornhuskers have run the 34 Trap 142 times for
709 yards (5.0 average) and seven touchdowns.
"The reason the play has been so good for us is that teams often
leave a void in the middle when they're trying to shut down our
option," says Cornhuskers running backs coach Dave Gillespie.
"It's almost like they forget about the fullback."
But it's not so much that the defense suffers amnesia as that it
is lulled to sleep. Nearly every time Nebraska runs the option,
the quarterback fakes a handoff to the fullback. Once the
Cornhuskers' assistant coaches in the press box notice that the
opposing defensive linemen are just trying to bull their way into
the backfield instead of standing their ground and clogging the
middle, and that the linebackers are overlooking the fake by
keying on the quarterback and tailback, they will recommend
running the trap.
The play conjures up good memories for Nebraska coach Frank
Solich. In 1962, when Solich was a reserve fullback for the
Cornhuskers, the late Bob Devaney installed the 34 Trap in the
playbook. Ever since, it has broken open more tight games than
even Solich can count, the most memorable being the 1995 Orange
Bowl against Miami. In the final 7:38 of that game, Nebraska
scored two touchdowns on fullback trap runs of 15 and 14 yards by
Cory Schlesinger to give Tom Osborne a 24-17 win and his first
national title. The lumbering runs weren't things of beauty, but
that night Solich, then the Cornhuskers' running backs coach,
swears he saw perfection.
FLORIDA'S X QUICK
Steve Spurrier has never been one to have his quarterback kneel
down at the end of a game. He'll run up the score on anybody,
and he'll do it without wiping the smirk off his face. But
there's a little-known reason for Spurrier's gluttony: He likes
to test rarely used plays during trash time. Such was the case
last Oct. 31 against Georgia, when Spurrier called a timeout
with 43 seconds remaining and his team leading 31-7 with the
ball on the Bulldogs' eight-yard line. After the timeout the
Gators gave the ball to freshman wideout John Capel on a sweep
known as X Quick. The result was an eight-yard touchdown run and
a glimpse into Florida's future.
X Quick has been in the Gators' playbook since 1993, but this
season Spurrier is likely to spring it more often than he ever
has before. That's because of Capel, a track star who has run the
fastest 200 meters (19.87 seconds) in the U.S. this year. Last
season Capel carried the ball on X Quick 11 times and gained 80
yards. Now that the fastest football player on the planet has a
year of experience under his belt, X Quick could became one of
the most devastating plays in college football, even tougher to
defend than Florida's famous fade route.
TENNESSEE'S COUNTER GAP
There are four key blocks in the Volunteers' signature running
play. The first is the hit that the fullback lays on the
play-side outside linebacker. The second is the block that the
play-side guard makes to seal off one defensive tackle. The
third is the block the play-side tackle puts on the middle
linebacker. The fourth, and perhaps most critical, requires the
other guard to pull and hammer the play-side defensive end. "If
we get every defender accounted for," says Volunteers coach
Phillip Fulmer, "then our tailback [Travis Henry, above] is
one-on-one with the free safety. That's a situation we like."
TEXAS A&M'S 54 BLOOD BLUE
In this blitz the two outside linebackers rush from the
perimeter. The inside linebackers (including Cornelius Anthony,
below) take a step forward, cross (or stunt, as the coaches call
it), then blitz. The cornerbacks play man-to-man coverage, the
strong safety covers the tight end, and the free safety shadows
the quicker of the two running backs. The other back is spied on
by the two defensive ends. If the back stays in to pick up the
blitz, the ends crash in on the quarterback. If the back flares
right or left, then one of the ends attempts to cover him. "The
idea is to get to the quarterback quickly," says A&M defensive
coordinator Mike Hankwitz. "If the quarterback has time, he
could beat us because we're in single coverage. But that doesn't
happen too often."
USC'S RED RIGHT 22 Z HOOK
This West Coast offense mainstay succeeds by spreading the
defense and providing the quarterback with numerous options. The
quarterback, Carson Palmer (left), has four options: His first
is the strongside (or tight-end-side) wideout, who runs 12 yards
down the field and curls back. If that receiver is covered, the
quarterback turns toward the running back who has taken a wide
flare and is one yard behind the line of scrimmage. (The other
running back is a decoy.) The third option is the tight end, who
hooks across the field and sets up four to six yards past the
line of scrimmage. If the tight end is covered, the next option
is the weakside wideout, who runs a 14-yard postcurl pattern.
NEBRASKA'S 34 TRAP
"Because we run the option so much, teams tend to get
outside-conscious against us," says coach Frank Solich. "This
creates good angles and creases for our trap." The key blocker
is the play-side guard. He must push the defensive tackle
outside, then block the weakside inside linebacker. If the
quarterback and tailback sell the option fake, the play-side
defensive end will be out of position and the play-side tackle
will have a clean shot at the strongside inside linebacker. For
the fullback (Joel Makovicka, 45, left) to go for a long gain,
the play-side tight end must tie up the safety.
FLORIDA'S X QUICK
The Gators usually run this play out of a five-wide-receiver
set, or what Steve Spurrier calls the Tiger formation. The play
starts with a far wideout--this season that will usually be John
Capel (WR 1)--in motion. The ball is snapped as he reaches the
weakside tackle and is given to the wideout on a straight
handoff. Receiver number 2, lined up as the tight end, and the
strongside tackle are responsible for sealing the defensive end.
Receiver number 3 is responsible for blocking the strong safety,
and receiver number 4 handles the strongside linebacker.
Receiver number 5 runs the cornerback deep and out of the play;
the corner has to buy the threat of Capel's passing the ball.
After taking the handoff, Capel (10, bottom) swings around the
line, looks for a seam and uses his world-class speed to get