West Virginia provided yet another reminder Thursday of one of the unbreakable, unwritten rules of football. When the chips are down, run your best play with your best player. Need an example? Think back to two years ago this weekend, when Florida began its run to a national title and Tim Tebow established himself as a legend-in-the-making because Gators coaches stopped getting cute and ran their best play in a crucial moment.
For the Mountaineers on Thursday at Colorado, their most consistently successful calls were zone plays that allowed quarterback Pat White to get the ball in the shotgun, read his blocks and hit a hole. So what did West Virginia coaches do on third-and-two in overtime? They called a lead play out of the I-formation. This didn't fool Colorado, which got the luxury of bunching up inside the tackle box instead of being forced to spread out to cover every possibility the Mountaineers' usual wide-open formations offer. West Virginia failed to make the first down, missed a field goal and lost the game.
All coaches considering trying to trick the defense on a critical short-yardage down should remember this one play from the fourth quarter of the 2006 Florida-Tennessee game: F 4-1 T28 Tebow, T. rush for 2 yards to the UT 26, 1ST DOWN UF.
That's how the official play-by-play describes 97 Q Power, the play that launched Florida's national title run two years ago. Here's the setup. Trailing 20-14 in the fourth quarter at a deafening Neyland Stadium, Florida starting quarterback Chris Leak slid a yard short of the first-down marker on third down. The Gators called timeout to contemplate their next move. At that point, Tebow, then a freshman, had carried six times for 27 yards. Tennessee would be expecting a Tebow run, but the Volunteers hadn't held Tebow to less than a yard yet.
In the booth, Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen considered these facts. Receiver Percy Harvin had sprained his ankle, so he wasn't an option. A pass was risky. Tailback DeShawn Wynn didn't always hit the hole hard. So Mullen called 97 Q Power, a run designed for Tebow to carry on the outside hip of the left tackle, following a back who would try to kick out the first man outside the tackle.
"I can't believe we're going to give the ball to a freshman," Mullen remembered thinking after calling the play.
In the huddle, tackle Carlton Medder heard the play call and knew the youngster would come through. "We knew Tebow wasn't going to take no for an answer," Medder said in an interview last year.
Tebow ran the ball exactly where Tennessee expected him to, and the Vols couldn't stop him. The play crushed Tennessee, and Leak came back to insert the dagger with a touchdown pass to Dallas Baker.
Too often, coaches overthink such plays when they should dare their opponent to beat them at their best. Think about it another way. If you run an Italian restaurant and someone tips you off that a critic is dining that night, you don't serve him kung pao chicken. You serve him the house special.
Saturday, the Gators return to Neyland Stadium. If they face a critical short yardage down -- and don't get caught up in the whole Tennessee-lost-to-UCLA-and-UCLA-got-creamed-by-BYU nonsense; Tennessee has the horses to play with the Gators -- what do you think Vols coaches will expect them to run? That's right, 97 Q Power. So should Mullen and Florida coach Urban Meyer get tricky? Absolutely not. They should serve Tebow with a side of stiff-arm.