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For the sports fan, the week leading up to The Game feels like counting down the days to Christmas. For others, it can feel like a looming midterm, almost like one of those midterms you spent weekends studying for, never emerging from Bass Library to learn the basics of American football. For those who find themselves lost in the daily coverage from the News’ sports section like a math nerd lost at a frat party, XC has prepared a comprehensive guide to faking your way through football.

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What’s happening in this photo? Photo by Zoe Gorman.


For the “casual sports fan”… Football’s main appeal is that it only comes on once a week. Think of this as the difference between a daily language class and a weekly seminar: one is much more of a gut than the other. With many other sports, like basketball and baseball, this type of low commitment simply isn’t possible. Huzzah for football!

For the applied mathematics major… Watching football can be almost like solving a Sudoku puzzle, filling out a crossword, or playing a rousing round of chess. Yale’s football team runs hundreds of offensive plays and lines up in tens of defensive formations.

For the Grand Strategy hopeful…  Every player is a country, the teams are allied blocs, the end goal is to dominate territory. In the lead-up to a game, the coaches and players watch hours of film to select plays and formations. Constant strategizing! Risk-reward calculations! Extreme competition! Just like your Grand Strategy seminar! Quarterbacks need to read defenders’ positions to choose who to pass to. Receivers need to find open space, and then communicate that back to the quarterback. Defenders need to decide who to cover and when to try to stop the quarterback before he throws.

For the Harry Potter aficionado… The football is like the Quaffle and the players are like the Bludgeons. In some games, seeking a touchdown can be like trying to catch a snitch on a windy day. Fly Harry, fly!

For the Yale gentleman… Football appeals as a controlled display of violence and toughness. Big hits, loud noises aside, the true battle of football is a battle of the mind. Cogito ergo sum. Acta non verba. Crescat scientia vita excolatur.


“The cornerback jumped that route like he’d been waiting for it all day. He must have seen the wide receiver doing that on film.”

“Man, I wonder how we’re going to respond to this passing attack. Should we drop another cornerback into coverage, or will the other team expect that and move to a rushing game?”

“That powerful cut-block is going to leave such intense bruises on the defensive lineman’s knees.”


Center: The guy with his hands on the ground and his rear in the air. But he’s not twerking. He snaps the ball from backwards between his legs for the quarterback at the start of every play.

Quarterback: Oh captain, my captain! Ladies, this is what Tom Brady does. He is the leader of the offense, yells formations that don’t need to make sense to the rest of us (“Red 80! Check check, set, hike!”), receives the ball from the center, and then throws or hands or occasionally tries to run. He is, in essence, the team’s biggest star. Keep your eye on him at the start of every play to keep up.

Offensive line: The largest people on the field. They start off in front of the quarterback and running backs. They aim to protect the quarterback when he has the ball by blocking the defensive line. Recall whatever you can recollect from The Blind Side.

Wide receivers: They start off standing slightly away from the rest of the offensive line, then try to dart around defenders and put themselves in a position to catch a pass from the quarterback.

Tight end: A player who acts both as a blocker and a receiver. A jack of all trades, if you will. Like a beater AND a chaser rolled into one. He stands just next to the line and runs, catches, blocks, you name it.

Running back: Possibly referred to as tailbacks, rushers, halfbacks. They get the ball and run.


Defensive line: Stands right across from offensive line. There are lots of them and they are large. Their goal is to try and sack the quarterback or tackle the running backs.

Middle linebacker: He’s a special linebacker, who acts like the quarterback, but for the defense. He yells out calls and instructions to the other linemen.

Cornerbacks and Safeties: Generally speaking, these positions have the same aim, which is to cover the receivers and prevent them from catching/running with the ball. Careful not to mix up “cornerback” and “quarterback” after a few shots.

Kickers: Guess! (In case you didn’t guess correctly, they kick.)


“The defense is just getting too much pressure on the quarterback!”

“Dude, our quarterback is making a lot of rushing attempts.”

“Wow, the Harvard’s receiver is a total butterfingers—he can’t catch a ball.”

“Our running back managed that handoff extremely well. Shots all around!”


Here the golden rule: the team that wins a football game is the one that has the most points at the end of the game.

For those wanting more specific directions, a football game is split into four timed quarters. Different types of scores are worth different values. Think of it as similar to a presidential election: for winning the big states, candidates get more points. 

1) The “touchdown”: The best outcome is a touchdown, for which a team gets six points.To score a touchdown, a team has to move the football down the field in a specific direction until it reaches the big rectangle at the end of the field known as the end zone. Winning an end zone is like winning Ohio.

2) The “field goal”:  If a team gets close to the end zone but can’t finish what it started, it can attempt to kick a field goal. The kicker tries to kick the ball, facing a line of defenders running towards him, through the two posts raised and set up like a U at the back of the end zone. If the kicker strikes the ball and it ends up going between the posts, his team earns three points.

3) The “extra point” or “point after touchdown”: After each touchdown you score, you get a free chance to attempt a one-point field goal from very close to the posts. Kickers almost always make these field goals, and it’s embarrassing when they don’t. To put it in perspective, NFL kickers make their extra points 99.3 percent of the time: There’s a higher chance that a Yale student will get a D in New York Mambo than that a kicker will miss an extra point.

4) The “safety”: If a player gets tackled in his own end zone—that is, in the one that’s not on the end of the field that he’s moving towards—the opposing team gets two points.

To move the ball, teams run plays, which begin when the center snaps the ball to the quarterback. On a play, a team can either run or pass the football. If they run the football, the play ends when the runner is tackled. If they pass the football, the play either ends when the ball hits the ground without being caught, or, if the ball is caught, when the person who catches the ball is tackled.

An offense has four plays to move the ball ten yards forward. If they can do it, they get another four plays to move the ball another ten yards. If they can’t, the team on defense becomes the team on offense at the same spot on the field. The game proceeds like this until the clock runs out.


“This team’s field position is terrible. They have such a long way to go before they get to the end zone. I doubt they’ll score any points this possession.”

“I’ll take the three points, but it’s a shame they had to settle for the field goal there.”

“First down with ten yards to go. Anything’s an option here.”


Now here’s a section that the academics can get behind. The very first Game is actually the second “real” college football game ever. The score was as thrilling as you’d expect for a beginner’s game —1-0. But Harvard lost, so there’s that. The first game was played in November of 1875, making this the 130th Game ever (they skipped a couple of years for things like World Wars.)

Although nowadays few Yalies frequent Yale Bowl and most large institutions would laugh at the idea of adding us to their schedule, Yalie Walter Camp ‘82 has been named the “Father of American Football” and Yale (along with Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia).

Since the turn of the millennium, Yale’s track record against Harvard has been a bit spotty, with the Bulldogs’ last shining victory in 2006. Just like the Red Sox, this beloved team must be suffering from some curse or questionable recruiting technique that is no reflection on its character as an institution.


“Looks like the play is getting pretty rough. Let’s hope this isn’t a repeat of 1894 Hampden Park Bloodbath.”

“We’re winning right now, but you can never be too sure: after 1968, we know that it’s not over until the clock runs out.”


Daniel Stern contributed reporting.