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By Jazmine Johnson & Derek Wattay

It’s the season opener, and the Towson Tigers have the ball on the Huskies’ 28-yard line. It’s the fourth quarter and there are two-and-a-half minutes left on the clock at UConn’s Rentschler’s Field.

It’s been an unbelievable game for Towson, astonishingly leading Connecticut 26-18 with the contest’s final two-minute warning approaching. No one could have predicted this, and almost no one did. UConn – a Football Bowl Sub-Division team – was expected to crush lowly Towson, whom had never in its history recorded a victory over a NCAA Division 1-A program. As a Football Championship Sub-Division squad, Towson wasn’t supposed to stand a chance.

Jack Jones of Betfirm.com not only predicted a Huskies victory, he gave the game an enormous 24-point spread.

Predicting a 33-13 Huskies win, UConn’s blog at SBNation.com more-or-less poked fun at the Huskies’ week one contest, describing the start of “the toughest schedule in UConn football history” as “a slow wheeze.”

The blogger’s punchline has since become ironic, as the only ones slow and wheezing are the Huskies opposite of the Tigers’ offense, who have been overwhelmed all game long by the explosive running of the Colonial Athletic Association’s Pre-Season Offensive Player of the Year, Tigers running back Terrance West.

It’s second-and-eight and a critical down for the Tigers as they’ve been handed a prime opportunity to seal the victory after recovering a Huskies’ fumble on a punt return. The clock may be winding, but the Huskies are just a touchdown and a two-point conversion from a tie – more than accomplishable inside two-minutes if the Huskies defense can manage a clutch stop.

A field goal inside 35 yards is makeable, but given the circumstances, isn’t something third-year offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose wants to risk settling for. Sure, three points pads his team’s lead by more than a score, but predicting the turn of events that can swiftly occur in a high-pressure, do-or-die situation can be risky business.

It’s not that he doesn’t trust his team, but one just never knows.

Three is good, but six is far safer. The deliberation over the next play starts in the coach’s booth above the field of play.

***

When it comes to the thought process behind an offensive play call, fans and spectators can be very shortsighted. Few grasp all that it entails.

“There’s a lot that goes into [calling a play],” says Towson Tigers offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose. “Based on probability, we assess and assume how the defense is going to line up, learn as much as we can about it, and then we make a play call that is the most educated thing against what they do. We figure out what their weakness is, and we attack it.”

The probability and weakness that coach Ambrose is alluding to are exhumed from film study—hours and hour of it. For coaches and coordinators, the game starts well before the opening kickoff. It starts in the film room at the start of each week.

Ambrose spends more than 70 hours a week studying film and taking notes.

“If I’m not watching film, I don’t know what I’m doing,” Ambrose laughs. “I watch film sometimes all day long.”

And what he’s scouring film for is scheme. Once he finds and figures his opponent’s strategy, he can then begin design his own. Ambrose studies film by watching opposing offenses line up against is upcoming opponent’s defense. Based on how his opposition habitually lines up and executes against certain offensive looks, he’s able to find his probability and construct a play scheme that puts his team in the best position to win.

But things don’t always go according to plan. The good coordinator realizes his opponent is doing their homework as well.

“Just like we study film, they study film. Throughout the course of the game, they’ll make an adjustment to us,” Ambrose says, “then it’s up to us to make an adjustment to the adjustment they’ve made. It turns into a little chess match. They move here, we move there.”

And no different than any chess match, the victory nearly always belongs to the player that stays a move ahead of his opponent. Between plays, Ambrose says he likes to have at least three moves ready; he likes to have a play if he gains yards, if he loses yards and if he gets a first down. To figure those moves, he and his team continue to evaluate the opposition’s tactics and calculate results between each and every play.

Until the clock expires and final whistle sounds, the game never stops.

***

In the booth, Ambrose has a panoramic view of the entire field of play. He’s seen the game play out at every juncture on every level, from the quarterback behind center to the deepest safety and from the widest spread receiver to the first down marker on the opposite sideline.

He’s recognized that the Connecticut defense has adjusted its front since the half. In effort to stop the run that has terrorized them for much of the game, the Huskies D has switched from a 4-3 look to a 3-4 look. To UConn’s credit, they’ve been largely successful. Prior to intermission, Towson’s ground attack was averaging 5.9 yards a clip on designed runs. Since the start of the second half, Towson’s backfield has averaged a little more than two.

Ambrose knows he needs to keep a first down conversion manageable in order to potentially get six, but also that he needs the clock to keep running toward expiration in case he can’t (if he can get the clock inside two minutes, he’s golden). Does he stay aggressive, pass and risk stopping the clock or stick with the run in spite of burgeoning resistance? He has just seconds to evaluate and make his call down to the sideline to his brother, head coach Rob Ambrose.

Checking his play sheet, he decides it’s a weak side toss from a trips-bunch.

Here’s to hoping his unit can execute and their the work has paid off.

***

Despite all of its stops and starts, football is a rapid game. Though the action is wildly fast and brutally violent, it’s perplexingly systematic. Within a single offensive explosion, every player’s move is synchronized and tactically calculated.

During a play, the spectator’s focus is typically myopic, centered primarily on what’s going on around the football itself. There’s no context; they miss its cohesive elements. Offensive football is about continuity. Each of the 11 players on the field has a designated task that is equally paramount to the ultimate success of the called play.

“Assignments and fundamentals are easily the most important part of offensive football,” says Ambrose, “We tell our guys all the time, do your one-eleventh. On offense, if one guy misses his block, then our entire offense looks like it’s misperforming.”

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Towson head coach Rob Ambrose coaching up his squad during red zone drills — when fundamentals can mean the most.

Like a machine, the offensive play relies just as much on the quality and efficiency of its parts as it does its well-engineered design. Once a play is called, its up to the players to put the pedal to the metal and make the sparks fly.

As the quarterback, Towson fifth year senior Peter Athens is the ignition of the Tigers’ offensive apparatus. Without him, the play goes nowhere. From behind center, the QB is essentially expected to diagnose every assignment on both sides of the football, both before and after the snap, in mere seconds.

“For us, the quarterback position is the most important,” says Ambrose. “If he doesn’t know what everyone is doing and how a play is supposed to work for us during that part of the game, then he can’t play for us.”

Despite his enormous responsibility on the field, Athens enjoys the challenges of playing quarterback and embraces the pressure – he has to, otherwise, mistakes are made and games are lost.

“Everything happens pretty fast,” says Athens. “But I have a great line that helps out with most of the pressure I feel – it definitely helps to slow things down.”

Of course, without his five trusty offensive linemen, Athens is helpless against the opposition’s forward wall. His linemen are his injectors pumping him confidence to carry out the play against pressure. They are unquestionably what separate the play’s success from complete and total failure.

The offensive line’s job is to ultimately stand and sustain blocks for the quarterback to go to work. While it may sound like a fairly simple duty, it’s easily the most difficult mission on the gridiron. Much like the quarterback, the offensive line has to be able to assess the opposition’s attack and shift itself accordingly.

“If a guy moves so much as a foot, it can change the entire play,” says Towson center Doug Shaw. “It’s those subtle variations we have to look for.”

If both the QB and the line can successfully recognize the attack, the possibilities are endless for the offense, via the run or the pass.

 

If the quarterback is the ignition and the linemen are the offensive fuel injectors, the running backs and receivers are undoubtedly the machine’s pumping pistons, thrusting full speed ahead.

Whether to run or pass is always the question, but with high-motor play-makers at the skill positions, the sideline never has to over think it. As long as the back or receiver can use his ability and technique to be in position when his number is called, the rest should take care of itself.

“I gotta make a play. I gotta make it to the end zone. I gotta put points on the board,” says Tigers running back Terrance West once the the ball is in his hands.

“You can’t be nervous, you gotta be sharp,” says Tigers receiver Spencer  Wilkins, speaking to what its like when the ball is spiraling through the air on a fly rout. “You just gotta do what you gotta do – just relax. You’ve been working all week in practice for it, everything is gonna work out.”

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The Tigers practice at Towson’s Unitas Stadium

And practice is truly where a successful play starts. Its continuous repetition throughout the week is what makes everything on the playing field operate the way it’s supposed to—like clockwork. Towson’s football team practices three-hours a day every day up until game day. Along with practice, weight training and film study is also required of each player. Come kick off, the machine is well greased.

Such a regimen leaves little room for excuses. All that’s left to do is fire up the engine and execute.

***

Thirty-thousand-plus sit watching from the stands. ESPN is broadcasting live. The game has come down to the wire. Inside Husky territory with 2:32 left to play, Towson has an opportunity to either extend their lead with a field goal or potentially seal the game with a touchdown. Meanwhile, UConn wants anything but to be upset and are in desperate need of either a stop or a turnover.

Athens receives the hand signal from the sideline and rushes back to the huddle to relay the play to his teammates.

The huddle breaks.

One wide receiver hustles out wide left, while three more bunch together just off the right side of the offensive line – hence the term “trips bunch.”

The quarterback is lined up behind center with a lone running back behind him in the backfield.

Athens scans the D.

While the box is stacked with three down defensive linemen, two middle linebackers, an edge rusher and a creeping strong safety, the weak side defenders appear cautious against the three receivers bunched to their left. As the strong safety takes three big steps backward, it’s clear the defense isn’t sure what to expect – it’s a running situation, but the alignment looks strikingly like a pass play.

Athens calls for the snap.

The offensive line shifts right, the cluster of wide receivers explode off the ball. Athens turns, peddles and tosses the ball to his right, West is there to receive the toss. The three wide-outs are now West’s primary blockers as he muscles and tears up the sideline.

Though the clock stops as West is forced out of bounds, the Tigers convert the first down on a valiant 22-yard rumble to extend the drive.

Four plays later, the Tigers score a touchdown to seal its first victory over an FBS team in school history.

Final score: 33-18, Towson Tigers.

And that’s how it’s done.

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