By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In a perfect world, which probably is pretty close to what the football world was back in the days of Vince Lombardi and Johnny Unitas, a football coach would go out and try to find 11 guys on each side of the ball, line ’em up and turn ’em loose.
It was pretty much a mano-a-mano game, without a whole lot of substitution. In fact, believe this if you will, but there actually was an era of one-platoon football in college, where players played both offense and defense.
It was written into the rules.
In 1954 the NCAA, ever cost-conscious, put in a rule that allowed only one player to be substituted between plays, including change-of-possession plays, putting an end to specialized units.
It may sound absurd today, but back then Tennessee’s Hall of Fame coach “General” Robert Neyland praised the end to what he called “chickenpoop” football.
Of course, Neyland often punted on third-and-long, too.
You’d think the one-platoon rule would last only a year or two, but it wasn’t until 1965 that the NCAA went back unlimited substitution.
Imagine, if you will, players in this era of up-tempo, pass-crazy, spread out trying to go both ways on an August or early September afternoon in Columbia, Mo., or Tucson, Ariz.
But there still lingers a certain sentiment for a defensive coach being able to come up with 11 players good enough to line them up and say, “Here we are. Come and try to beat us.”
At least you would think that a coach would like that, but West Virginia’s new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson rejects such a thought out of hand.
“I like it the other way,” Patterson said. “The more kids out of the 45 kids I have on defense I get involved, the stronger we are,” he said.
In some ways this sounds quite contradictory to what we have been hearing for much of the summer out of the WVU camp.
Dana Holgorsen wants to settle on one quarterback. Shannon Dawson is looking for his four best receivers to play. A year ago, the offensive line made very few substitutions.
But that is offense and, as fast as they go, they are best moving players in and out.
What’s more, the reason they tempo is to keep the defense from making its substitutions, to wear them down and to keep them from going to third-and-12 packages or third-and-1 packages.
Football today is unlike it has ever been before. It is almost fast-break basketball on every play.
Defensive schemes match up not only with those third-and-12 or third-and-1 situations, but with the personnel that the offense presents.
“What I said yesterday was this game has become a game of matchups, and it’s just becoming moreso,” Patterson said. “Fifteen years ago the game was played in a phone booth. Now it’s played the full 53 and a half yards across the field.
“You have to defend from sideline to sideline and goal line to goal line, and you just can’t do that saying put this group of people on the field and let them go. You will get mismatches.”
No matter how good those 11 players are, there are times you are going to wind up with a 4.2 receiver trying to be covered by a 4.7 linebacker, and the only substitution you better get ready for is the one that defends the point after touchdown.
That is why Patterson is going to be mixing and matching all season.
“My whole thing is don’t allow the offense to create mismatches. Match personnel with substitutional patterns,” he said.
Obviously, with the uptempo offenses, you can’t matchup situationally, but there are times during a game that allow substitutions.
“In today’s game, during the course of play you get natural substitution patterns which allows guys to rest. So, without thinking I have to get this guy some rest, he’s played too much, it just naturally happens during the course of the game,” Patterson said.
Think about it. There are flags, injuries, timeouts, TV timeouts … more than an offense really likes for during those moments a defense can get some rest, bring in fresh bodies and adjust matchups with personnel and situations.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.