So how would we do against Lassen, a perennial league bully who had beaten this group the year before as seventh graders by more than 40 points? This is the continuing story of my “Worst to First” youth football coaching experience in Reno, Nevada this year. This is the pilot season that was shot for the reality television show “Worst to First” I took an eighth grade team that had won about six games in the last six years to the Semi-Finals in the largest and most competitive league in the Reno/North Nevada area. I wasn’t sure myself. Our opponent were kids who had always won, had won a Sierra Youth Football League championship together and expected to win. The team I was coaching had never won, had never even had a winning season, made the playoffs or even stayed under the mercy rule against this team.
To prepare for this classic Wing T team I relied on my trusted friend from Florida Joe Cianflone. Joe was an AYF Coach of the Year and had run the Deleware Wing T for six years. While I knew the basics of defending the Wing T, I brought out the heavy artillery with Joe. I had a single game film on Lassen and they ran the classics: Buck Sweep, Trap, Power, Belly, Criss-Cross Counter, Waggle and Quick Pitch.
They were big, sound and reasonably athletic youth football team. But they didn’t like playing in space, which would be to our advantage. If we protected the football, clicked on special teams and played sound defense we probably had an even money chance of winning this pivotal game. We would need to start strong though, if we got behind early, those voices in the back of our players minds would be telling them “you are SOS” same old Sparks, the team that always loses.
On defense we tried to take away their favorite play, the Buck Sweep. So we cross keyed the backs with our Linebackers. The Strongside Linebacker keyed the away back who was usually the Halfback and the Weakside Linebacker keyed the far back who to him was usually the Fullback. Our Strongside LB was at about 3 ½ yards and the Weakside was at 4 ½ to make sure they didn’t run into each other.
For two of the three days during our one hour defensive indy sessions, I worked exclusively with our Defensive Tackles and Nose Tackles. I’m not going to give away everything, but we did play our Monster Zone alignment and we worked the heck out of our Down Linemen on making sure to get their hands on the Offensive Linemen and stayed square to the line of scrimmage. We got our hands on the hips of the Offensive Linemen when they down blocked and squeezed down hard. When the Offensive Linemen were running through to the second level to block a Linebacker, we got a hand on him and tried to take him off course and then squeezed hard. If the Offensive Lineman pulled, we moved right into the pullers hip pocket, moved in that direction and peeked back quickly for the ball. When the Offensive Linemen stepped wide to reach block, our kids got depth and width and looked for the sweep.
Repping the defense using a scout offense in team was all on the backs of our coaches. They did well, augmenting that group was a fast young college student who was the nephew of one of our coaches. Youth football coaching isn’t always an old mans game, it’s always good to get a couple of ringers in to help on scout days. The only way to be able to defend some of the key breaker plays like the quick pitch was to just run a bunch of reps. By game time we had easily run all of their plays at least 30-40 times each.
Our game plan was a bit different than in games past. Instead of coming out at moderate speed to make sure our skill position two-way starter kids wouldn’t get gassed, we would come out fast. On defense, instead of rotating our minimum play players at the two Nose Tackle spots, we played our best eleven on defense. Our goal was to score very quickly, get up early and give our kids some confidence. Then we would have to hustle to get our MPRs their snaps as the game progressed. We would be in big trouble if we didn’t get that early lead.
The kids came in with a positive but apprehensive attitude. They were very serious and focused during pre-game. This was a make or break game for our season. We started the game with the ball, drove it down to quickly score on a nine play drive that took less than three minutes off the clock. After Lassen made a first down, they gave the ball back to us on downs at our forty. We promptly dove 60 yards in ten plays to make it a two touchdown game.
Lassen had scouted us well. They were packing it in with a 6-2 defense, Corners at Just three yards of depth and a Safety at about eight. After just missing another onside kick Lassen went 55 yards in 13 plays as we had to get some of our MPRs their snaps in the A gaps on D to make it 14-7.
Our kids didn’t blink, we amped up the tempo and quickly scored another touchdown in just seven plays to make it a three touchdown game. An onside kick gave us the ball back at the 45 and we stretched our lead to three scores to make it 28-6. Defensively our approach was working very well. Our kids saw in the game exactly what we had practiced the week before. We tacked on another score with about 90 seconds to go before the half to make it 35-6 at the half. There were lots of smiling faces from our kids in that half-time endzone.
The second half was quite a bit different. We held them on defense to start the game, then went into max slowdown mode. We scored on our opening drive to make it 41-6, then started subbing in generously on offense. I wanted our defensive starters to get some good work as Lassen started going to the air. The final was 41-6 and we had made a lot of progress that week; no turnovers, only one penalty, no injuries, the first team offense scored on every possession and only a handful of first downs given up on defense.
I was amped and very relieved. What a load off, I slept the entire flight back to Omaha 5:00 am the next morning. But how would we respond next week? Back to our familiar two steps forward, one step back?