The science and the art of the fake

The play is called “Hard to Kings Right Idaho Yellow.” On paper, it’s a play action pass with the tight end dragging from the backside at about five yards. The twin receivers split out to the play side and run a smash-route pattern, with the slot receiver running a deep corner route and the split end running a 15-yard comeback.

In other words, the quarterback fakes a hand-off to the tailback and then rolls out to his right, where hopefully he will have one of the three receivers open to accept his pass. But there is so much more to it than that.

In the fourth quarter against the University of Pennsylvania this past weekend, coach Siedlecki sent the play in. Tied 14-14, the Bulldogs were driving. Mike McLeod, the focal point of the Yale offense, had just gained nineteen yards off the right tackle.

The Bulldog offense now had first down and ten from their own 43-yard line — a perfect time to get quarterback Matt Polhemus out of the pocket where he becomes a threat both to run and pass. In this case, the hope was that maybe one of the Penn safeties would bite on play action and allow Polhemus to deliver the deep ball to Chandler Henley, running the aforementioned corner pattern. But things don’t always work out how they were planned.

With the help of the new video highlights feature on the Yale Athletics Web site, I had Matt walk me through the play — what he saw and how it developed. Everything Matt told me only confirmed in my mind just how intricate the game of football really is.

As always, play action pass only works if the play action is sold effectively. In this case, the right inside linebacker and the left defensive end both bite hard. Getting the left defensive end to buy the fake is particularly important because Polhemus is about to roll out to that side. If Polhemus can break the left defensive end’s containment, the play has a much better chance of succeeding than if he has to pull up and throw from the pocket, or worse, take a sack.

In this case, the play works because it is designed particularly well. First, it utilizes counter play action — where the running back fakes a misdirection run rather than just running straight ahead. Second, if you don’t account for Mike McLeod, he’ll tear you to shreds.

Although McLeod is any defense’s greatest concern when playing Yale, his fake alone would not usually provoke an overzealous reaction from the defense. Instead, it is the offensive line’s blocking scheme that really sells the fake. Rather than dropping into standard pass protection, the right guard and right tackle, Tom Woznicki and Jeff Monaco, pull around the center, as if counter to the left side had actually been called. Since linebackers are taught to read the movement of the offensive guards, it’s almost impossible for them not to honor McLeod’s fake.

Polhemus shows the ball in front of McLeod’s jersey and then pulls it away. McLeod clamps his arms closed and lowers his chest, a deception to conceal and protect the ball he has supposedly just been handed.

Ball still in hand, Polhemus hesitates just a split second and then curls back play side. He snaps his head around to see both what type of rush he faces and what type of coverage his receivers have encountered. Fullback Taylor Craig has now peeled off to the right to protect Polhemus’s roll out.

The center, Nick Wachtler, sneaks through a hole in the defensive line and runs out to the play side to pick up any straggling defensive linemen or linebackers who may suddenly realize what’s really going on.

Before the snap, Polhemus had read Cover-2. In layman’s terms, from the way the Penn defense was aligned while Polhemus was approaching the line of scrimmage, it appeared to the quarterback that the two safeties would each drop back and be responsible for covering half the field.

But as Polhemus comes out of his play action fake, he recognizes that the Penn defensive backfield is not in Cover-2. Instead, they’ve taken a chance and shifted to a coverage that proves more effective in shutting down Polhemus’s original plan of attack. Now, Ashley Wright, to whom Polhemus had intended to throw, is manned by the Penn strong safety, so Polhemus is forced to look for different options.

He sees that tight end Langston Johnson and flanker Chandler Henley are both covered. His downfield passing options exhausted, he decides to tuck the ball away and takes off.

A block from Wachtler gives him five yards, a block from Johnson gives him ten and a block from Wright gives him fifteen. The last five yards of this 20-yard, first down run that would vault Yale into Quaker territory are guts. Despite the daunting prospect of three Penn d-backs eagerly awaiting to unload on the Yale quarterback, he ducks his head and takes the pack of 200-something-pounders head on. And he hardly seems fazed at all.

“I’ve always liked the contact part of football,” Polhemus said. “I would say there’s a lot more to football than the contact that meets the eye.”

Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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