Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Anchors Aweigh

Since Princeton football was still two weeks away from kickoff, TigerBlog was able to watch the wall-to-wall college football on TV this past Saturday. There were games everywhere, which of course is a good thing and a huge risk at the same time.

It's the same with the NFL, which kicks off this week with a Thursday night game, a Sunday night game and two Monday night games in addition to what's left of the traditional Sunday at 1 and 4 (actually 4:15) schedule. More does not always equal better, as after awhile it all starts to look the same.

Going back to the first Saturday of college football season, there was a great deal to see - maybe too much. TigerBlog gave up before LSU-Washington and Maryland-California, and this was after watching football pretty much straight from noon to 10ish.

The one game that really stands out now is the first one, Ohio State vs. Navy, and not because the Midshipmen almost knocked off the Buckeyes in Columbus. No, the reason this one stood out is that watching Navy play football today is like watching Princeton play basketball 10 years ago.

Navy plays a unique offense, an option attack that enables the Mids to compensate for having undersized linemen. It's an offense that relies on misdirection and multiple reads off every play, yet it's also very simple at the same time. Navy runs it flawlessly.

Navy has used this attack under several different coaches, and the Mids have had great success with it. There have been wins over many BCS conference schools and bowl appearances; Navy has led the FBS in rushing each of the last four years.

In many ways, this is all similar to Princeton basketball of 10 years ago, when Princeton would lead Division I in scoring defense each year, regularly defeat schools from major conferences and succeed in the postseason.

Like Navy, Princeton's formula for success was based on a simple offense that was run with great precision and that was unique. Teams that played Princeton, especially outside the league, saw the offense only once, which made it extraordinarily difficult to prepare for the game.

And then a funny thing happened. Princeton's style, the "Princeton Offense," exploded around basketball, at every level. Today, pretty much every team everywhere has some aspect of Princeton's offense in its playbook.

This all started with the success of the 1997-98 Princeton team, which went 27-2 and reached the national Top 10. The ironic part about that team's legacy is that the style is no longer unique to Princeton, and a core part of that team's ability to succeed no longer exists.

The Navy offense, though, remains has hardly spread throughout the rest of college football. The offense that has taken over is the shotgun spread, which has either a bruising quarterback who is more fullback than pure passer or a pure passer who throws 50 or so times a game.

So why did Princeton's basketball offense take over when its football counterpart has not? It's a tough question. It has something to do with practicality and a great deal to do with how sports often work today.

John Thompson always said that Princeton's offense would work even better with with NBA-caliber players, and he proved it by taking Georgetown to the Final Four. In football, the No. 1 weapon in the Navy offense is the quarterback, and glamor quarterbacks are thinking about the NFL, which means being able to throw. Big-time quarterbacks don't want to run the option.

Another reason is that in sports, something becomes "hot" and then everyone follows it. The Princeton Offense became the trend, and everyone followed it. The Navy offense hasn't become trendy.

Lastly, there's the whole football mentality. The Princeton offense has simple fundamental aspects of it that can be applied throughout basketball. The Navy offense in football does, but it's probably too simple for a sport in which the top coaches are thought of as genius mad-scientist types who run complex schemes that only they can understand and teach.

Anyway, the Navy offense in football and the Princeton offense in basketball have more than a few similarities. Perhaps the greatest among them is the fact that when it comes on ESPN, it instantly looks different than everything else.


joiseyfan said...

All true, but of course the coming new "genius" wrinkle in football -- ironically starting in the pros and now filtering backward to colleges -- is the miraculous "Wildcat". Which of course is Charlie Caldwell's good old Single Wing, last abandoned by the Tigers in 1969. I assume wherever he is, Caldwell is laughing his wingback off.

Anonymous said...

If I might pick at a point with Tiger Blog...The Triple option or its even more devilish variant were extremely popular and effective about 20-30 years ago mostly in the southeast and southwest conferences.

Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas all ran it at some point or incorporated some of it into their playbook. It resides in the service academies because it emphasizes execution and deception to neutralize the size and athleticism of opponents. It's been around awhile--I played high school ball 66-68 and our school ran a "belly" series, which had the T formation QB pretending to hand off to a plunging lead back while reading the defense, he would hand off, keep or pitch depending on the read of the line.