By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
You did not hear Knute Rockne talk of tempo when he was coaching football, nor did you hear it from Walter Camp, Bear Bryant, Ara Parseghian or even Tom Osborne or Bud Wilkinson.
These were great coaches from eras when football was evolving toward what it is today, a game where coaches often talk of tempo with the same reverence that once was reserved for such assets as strength, speed and deception.
But what is tempo and what makes it so much a part of today’s game.
Tempo is the ability to control the flow of the game offensively. In years gone by the game had little tempo, teams huddling between plays, taking a full 30 seconds to get to the line of scrimmage and get a play off.
Today they run without a huddle, which leads to the ability to play very fast or to slow it down, giving the offense a chance to see what the defensive alignment is or to keep it from getting into the alignment or personnel package it may want to get into.
It is almost like watching a basketball team perform. When it is going at its best, it is going at top speed, running fast breaks, driving to the basket … and when they are not they are passing the ball around aimlessly, almost playing keep-away.
“The better we are offensively, then the more we can go fast. We have the ability to do things fast if we want,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen, one of today’s biggest proponents of playing at a quick tempo, explained.
As an example of what he meant, Holgorsen talked of a three-play sequence in the opener, one that was pulled off in a manner not always followed.
Tavon Austin had just gotten loose for 70 yards down to the Marshall 3.
Normally, when a player makes a run like that, he heads for the sideline, winded from the effort.
Austin stayed in the game as WVU hurried to the line of scrimmage, ran another play with Austin, a play on which he was stopped short of the goal line.
Did he come out here for a jumbo package?
No. If he did that, the goal line defense of Marshall would be substituted, too.
Austin stayed in and a third play was run, this a touchdown by Austin.
Why did it transpire like that?
“Coach Holgorsen saw the defense was really tired and we focus big time on our conditioning,” said quarterback Geno Smith. “The offensive line was great. They kept the tempo up. We want to get the defense on their heels and not be able to recover from big plays.
“If they get fresh guys in there on defense it can be a challenge for the offensive line, because their guys are fresher.”
But it was more than even that. It was a philosophy that the coaching staff is trying to develop on the team.
“We put an emphasis on putting plays back to back,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “A lot of times, when guys make big plays, they come out. We put
an emphasis on having our best guys on the field, regardless of the situation.
“If you’re tired, suck it up,” Dawson continued. “That was part of making him line up and keep giving him the ball.”
There was another part of it, too.
“Do you want him on the field? Yeah? Well, I want him on the field, too. It’s important. I’d say he’s one of our top 40 players,” Dawson said, his tongue embedded so deeply into his cheek it would take a team of surgeons to remove it.
Tempo does more than just keep the defense panting and keep the offense’s best players on the field.
It changes the entire strategy of the game by limiting what the defense can do.
It neutralizes defenses. You have to find ways to neutralize that pass rush.
Ways to slow it down? Obviously, you can run the football well or you can throw screens and get lined up fast.
“Defenses are all taught to run to the football. They want 11 people in the video at the end of a play. That’s going to happen, they are coached to do that. Hands down, that’s universal, that’s how they’re coached,” Dawson explained.
“So, we’ll throw a screen and let them all run to the ball and get in the camera, then we’ll line up fast and they have to run back and get ready. That 30 yards matters that they have to run back.”
It wears on a defense throughout a game, big 290-pound defensive linemen huffing and puffing to get lined up again and again and no time for a substitute to come in and give them a break.
“The substitution part doesn’t matter other than it makes them play base defense,” Dawson said. “If you give them time, they will get these elaborate blitzes and different coverages called. But if you don’t let them do that, they typically have a default defense they go to if you play fast.”
And there are no exotic blitzes or coverages out that vanilla base defense.
Playing at a fast tempo puts a lot on the quarterback, who must do a lot of reading of the defenses to get the plays going as quickly as he can.
“Most of it is on the feel of the game,” quarterback Smith explained. “Dana and I are on a really good page now. Our communication is at an all-time high. I really understand what he wants in tempo. I understand when he wants us to slow it down and I understand when he wants us to fast ball them and throw them off a bit.”
It’s a fine line, really.
“We make sure we’re not going too fast so we are missing our keys and we’re not going so slow the defense can get adjusted to everything we do,” Smith said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.