As a former sportswriter I rarely go to a sports event without casting at least one look toward the press box and wondering what my story line would be if I were still on the sports beat.
For the past five or six years I haven’t paid much attention to Princeton University football. But a few weeks ago I walked into Princeton Stadium midway through the third quarter of the Lafayette game and took in some of the action from the mezzanine walkway that separates the upper and lower stands. I moved along with the ball and eventually settled in around the 20 or 30-yard line. The man standing near me looked familiar and I introduced myself. He was Marty Johnson, founder and CEO of Isles, the urban development non-profit in Trenton, and — I soon discovered — a Princeton alumnus (Class of 1981) who had been recruited to play varsity football.
Since Johnson seemed pretty interested in what was happening on the field, I quickly ended the small talk about Trenton and turned my attention to the game, as well. And I was puzzled. It was midway through the third quarter, Princeton was leading, and the team was racing back into formation after each play. It looked every bit as frantic as a two-minute drill, when a team is racing against the clock to get in one final score before the end of the half or the end of the game. But there weren’t two minutes left, there were more like 22 minutes left.
At a brief stoppage in play, I squeezed in a question for Johnson. What’s this all about?
This, said Johnson, is the new look of Princeton football. Hurry up no huddle football is what Princeton runs these days, and it’s been this way since head coach Bob Surace (Princeton Class of 1990) took over in 2010. The theory is simple: A hurry up offense means more plays in the course of a game and more chances to score. The defense has less time to call its own alignment, less time to substitute players, and less opportunity to disguise blitzes and coverages. As the game moves on, a defense that is unaccustomed to playing at such a fast pace may simply run out of gas. And since relatively few teams play no huddle football throughout the game, other teams have a hard time preparing for a team that does.
The whole scenario reminded me of Princeton’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, when it was one of the last college teams to give up the deceptive “single wing” formation, with a quarterback, fullback, and tailback all lined up in the backfield in position to take a direct snap from the center (the tailback would resemble today’s quarterback in a shotgun formation). Using that hard-to-defend single wing, and having some extraordinary athletes, Princeton was a powerhouse team. It seems hard to believe now but in the fall of my freshman year, 1965, Princeton had a 17-game winning streak, a player on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and was playing games in front of nearly 50,000 spectators at Palmer Stadium.
But in 2010, the new hurry up, no huddle scheme was a challenge for the players. In Surace’s first year Princeton’s record was 1-9. In his second year the record was no better.
In 2012, with more of Surace’s recruits committing to the no-huddle offense, Princeton improved to 5-5. As Johnson and I were speaking Lafayette was gasping for breath. Johnson seemed confident that the program had turned a corner. Princeton won that game, 42-26, and since then has defeated Brown, Harvard, Cornell, and — just last week — Penn. The team’s record now stands at 7-1. This Saturday, November 16, Princeton hosts Yale at 1 p.m. A win would all but assure an Ivy League title, Princeton’s first since 2006.
As Johnson and I parted ways, I went into sportswriting mode. How in the hell, I wondered, do the Princeton players do it? A typical college team often uses most of the 40-second play clock to haul the players back into a huddle, get the play from the coach (college kids apparently can’t call plays themselves) to the quarterback, communicate the play to the rest of the team on the field, and then set up at the line of scrimmage to actually initiate the play. The Princeton team, in contrast, goes straight from one play into position for the next. The ball might be snapped with as much as 30 seconds left on the play clock.
As I watched the Princeton-Lafayette game, I noticed that Princeton had two players on the sidelines, one in a white hat, one in a black hat, flashing arm signals out to the players on the field. That’s how the players knew what play to run, and I assumed that one of the signal callers on the sideline was a decoy, in case the other team was trying to break the signal code. But it could have been more complicated: One set of signals might have been blocking assignments; the other might have been for the “skill” players who touch the ball.
I googled the subject and found out that hurry up no huddle is trendy enough that it has an acronym (HUNH), but it doesn’t guarantee success. Princeton struggled at first, and Alabama, a perennial contender for the national championship, has had one of the slowest-moving offenses in the nation.
Not everybody likes it. A South Carolina defensive coach named Ellis Johnson, quoted online, has said that HUNH is hurting college football. “What it’s about now is who can snap the football before the other team lines up. You can’t hardly get your players on and off the field. You can’t get your signals in and out. It’s become who has the best signal system or verbiage system … It’s not about blocking, tackling, running, and so forth.”
Verbiage? Heaven forbid that some wise guys on the other side try to out-think you instead of just out-hit you. I am reminded of former Princeton basketball coach Pete Carril’s statement: “The strong take from the weak, but the smart take from the strong.”
Amazingly, the Google search turns up no in-depth analysis of the Princeton no-huddle system. The sportswriter in me says to do a story on Princeton’s offense by interviewing not just the coach but also the players on the sidelines who transmit signals to the field. The editor in me, noting that the season finale is at Dartmouth on November 23, says wait ’til next year.