The Big Game
It was a cool cloudless November evening, a great day to be playing or coaching youth football. There was snow on the mountains but it was a nice 40 degrees at kickoff. We were playing at Reno High School at a beautiful venue, the grass looked great for being this late in the season. The crowd would be our biggest with a lot of interested league people in the stands wondering how our Sparks team had gone from the bottom to a first time ever playoff birth, now playing in the semi-finals, scoring over 400 points and challenging first seeded Reed for league dominance.
The Reed team looked confident and loose, team intact. All week we had stressed defense and special teams. Reed had a kicker who had gotten hot at the end of the season and was hitting everything. So we worked hard on our PAT block and punting game, my guess was this game would come down to turnovers and the kicking game.
Our kids were pretty tight prior to this game, but nothing overwhelming, just not as loose as in previous games. I didn’t make an impassioned speech, just a few words about how proud I was of them and to just play as hard as they possibly could, to play within themselves and to protect the football. I couldn’t help but be proud and a little emotional about how far this team had come. Our mantra for the last month had been “there is no tomorrow.” We had practiced and played like that for the last 30 days. The last 3 plane tickets I bought were all the more expensive refundable type, because I didn’t know if those flights to Nebraska each week would be one way if we lost or round trip is we won. My youngest daughter was hoping we would lose so she could have daddy back 7 days a week instead of just two.
We received and proceeded to drive the ball right down the field a few yards at a time. We stalled out at the Reed 20 yard line thanks to a bobbled snap negative yardage play we couldn’t recover from. On defense we held Reed to a 3 and out! Something we were only able to do in the previous game. They boomed a punt to our 40. This time we drove it down to their 25 before stalling out again, but by going max slowdown we were really milking the clock.
Reed got a first down on the ensuing drive, but thanks to a holding call and good defense we held them to just that one first down. Without the option- bubble screen, us not over pursuing and going max slowdown we were holding our own. The first quarter ended in an unlikely 0-0 tie.
On plan, I opened it up a little in the second quarter. We went Spread Single Wing and were able to complete a nice pass to the weakside on a go pattern against their weakest link- who was still a very good player. After picking up another first down we ran our first jet sweep of the game, Reed bumped their Linebackers down and ran the exact same stunt we ran against them in game one and just like us, they made a big play. Our Running Back got drilled by their Outside Linebacker in the backfield before he really got started. Our man fumbled and they returned the ball 75 yards for the score, it’s 8-0.
I was really struggling to get all of our minimum play kids their snaps in this game. With Reed being in the Pistol Spread and with a Center that had pulled extremely well in game one, I couldn’t get away with putting our weaker players in the A gaps and frogging. We could only rotate a single player there instead of 2 and we were going max slowdown as well. Unlike other games I had to rotate most of them in on offense. Every time I put our rookie 66 lb 8th grade Wingback in or the 76 lb kid, the defense would compress for the inside run. There was no way either of those kids could block the best Corner/Running Back in the league who was on their side and cheating up whenever they came in. Neither of the little guys could catch a cold, let alone block a 160 lb athletic Defensive End or Linebacker. With 5 monstrous and athletic defensive linemen, we struggled with penetration at the weakside Tight End spot as well, this league didn’t allow crab style blocking. So our defense had improved at the expense of our offense, but we had little choice, rules are rules and this is how we were going to roll this time around.
We fielded the ensuing kickoff at our 40 and drove to their 20 before our starting Quarterback took a helmet to the knee. This wasn’t a lay down injury, he was limping pretty badly and had to come out on both offense and defense. We gave the ball up via fumble-bobbled snap on an inside running play that looked like it had room. On the very next play Reed throws a long pass to the zone our now benched Cornerback had vacated and now we are down 16-0.
With the ball at midfield, the 16 pass to the Wingback is wide open the way the defense is aligned. Unfortunately our QB is still on the sidelines with a bad knee and the only kid that can consistently catch the ball for our team is also the backup Quarterback, he can’t throw the ball to himself. Our backup Quarterbacks are also slots in our Spread Single Wing, so when we move one to Quarterback, we are pretty limited to only going in one direction and the other team knows that. We pick up a first down and then give it up on downs.
We hold on Defense, get the ball back and hope to make it a one score game going into halftime. Our starting Quarterback re-enters the game and we start moving the ball again. We go to the 16 pass to the Wingback, it’s there, but his knee doesn’t hold up and he just doesn’t have enough spring in his step to threaten the line of scrimmage to make the play work and he gets sacked. Ball is on their 40 facing a fourth and 12 with 2 minutes left to go. In the previous game we had got them on the fake punt so now they don’t even put anyone back AND our punter had been striking the ball extremely well. The thought is our big play threats are limited, they won’t get a return, keep them deep, don’t let them score and regroup at the half. The snap is good, the punter fumbles the snap, the punt gets blocked and they run it back 55 yards for the score.
Now it’s 24-0 and our kids heads are hanging. We are playing good defense, just one mistake on special teams and not so well on offense. The pass is there, but our only throw catch combination that works isn’t in the game. Our kids are giving great effort, but we have to play our best game to win this one. Our plan is to use our QB as a handoff machine in the Spread Single Wing, which will limit us some and use that jet sweep stunt against them. We would attack that Weakside Corner some with the pass. Lots of sad faces in that halftime, as the hopes of a big upset look to be squandered away thanks to 3 big plays. At the half we probably have out yarded Reed by a 3-1 margin, but had nothing to show for it.
Our onside kick just missed but we got a break thanks to a Reed fumble on a botched option play. We set them up with a Jet sweep, then come back with a jet counter to get close enough to punch it in to make it a 24-6 game. Unfortunately now our chink in the armor is exposed with our starting Corner out at our already weakest position. The reshuffle puts us weak at Weakside Linebacker and now we have no options at Safety when we go to Cover 3 from Monster. Reed moves the ball right down the field and scores on its only sustained drive of the day to make it 32-6.
At this point, it’s going to be nearly impossible to pull off the upset. I remove our ailing Quarterback but we go up tempo to show the kids we aren’t giving up and drive it down to the Reed 4 before turning it over on downs. The kids play really hard for the entire game, not losing their cool, but visibly disappointed. We give up a late score and limp out with a 40-6 loss.
The other team played their starters to the end, but were great sports otherwise. We wished them luck in the finals in the handshake line and our now heartbroken kids improbable season was now over. We had given up 5 touchdowns, but just 3 on defense. On offense we had scored 26 points in game 1 and were inside the 10 twice and didn’t score. In this game we only scored 6 points and were inside the 20 three times and didn’t score. To win this one we needed our best game on all 3 sides of the ball and that didn’t happen.