College football is a game played by exceptional athletes in peak physical condition. While superior speed, agility and strength are desirable, intelligence can often neutralize an athletic advantage.
Smart players retain information learned in the film room or a team meeting to make appropriate deductions on the field, putting them in a better position to make the play. And coaches can concoct a game plan that utilizes deception, convincing the opposition that a player will zig when they actually zag.
These games of cat-and-mouse occur all of the time on the gridiron, with players and coaches trying to outsmart each other constantly.
Quarterbacks mix up their snap counts, trying to keep defenders off balance or induce them into jumping offsides. Linebackers rush the line of scrimmage showing blitz, only to back off into coverage. And offenses utilize play-action, showing the defense intent to run, while they actually intend to throw a pass.
The play-action pass may have started as a gimmick or gadget play, but it is now an integral part of virtually every offensive repertoire.
The concept is simple — convince defenders that the play is a run and trick them into abandoning their pass-defense responsibilities. For example, if a safety "bites" on the run and rushes toward the line of scrimmage to contain a ball carrier, the middle of the field opens up for a long pass play.
The quarterback plays an important role in creating the deception, and no detail can be overlooked.
"You want to have the same mesh point," USC signal caller Mark Sanchez said. "The mesh point is where you hand it off to the running back, that intersection. It has to look the same, the run plays and the play-action plays.
"If you are going to boot out and you are a head dropper when you hand off the ball, then you gotta do it on your boots. If you are handing off the ball and one hand is behind your back and you go to fake it with two hands, that just gives it away."
Sanchez really does all that he can to "sell" his play-action fakes.
"Mark is very good at hiding it," USC Head Coach Pete Carroll said. "He works really hard at it and he knows how to duck at the right time. He has been schooled very well; our guys have always done well at the play-action passing."
Of course there is more to play-action than what the quarterback does. The offensive line has to appear to be run blocking, otherwise the defense won't buy the fake.
"Play-actions get tipped off for the defense quite often at the line of scrimmage," Carroll said. "The offensive line doesn't come off as aggressively as they do on run plays."
Play-action isn't a new concept and defenses have continually developed methods to see through the cloud of deception and interpret what is really going on.
The initial key lies with the big guys up front, usually the first place defenders look to tip them off.
"Obviously, if the offensive linemen are down the field, run play, if they are not down the field, pass play," senior safety Kevin Ellison said. "That is probably the simplest one.
"If you look at guard, center, guard and they are up the field, it has to be a run play because they can't be up the field on a pass. "
Defenses also check out the posture of the offensive linemen when a play-action pass is on.
"The line, they usually just stand right up if it's a pass," cornerback Kevin Thomas said. "If it is a run, they usually power forward."
"Most times they are popping up," Ellison said. "You can't go past like a half a yard if it is a pass, otherwise they are ineligible and you will get a penalty."
One trick defenders use is to watch the knuckles of the offensive linemen before the play even starts.
If the knuckles are white, it means their hand is pressed hard to the ground, indicating that they are preparing to charge forward and run block. If the knuckles have normal coloring then the linemen will most likely roll back and pass block.
"With the offensive line you can tell, if they are heavy-handed or light-handed," tight end Blake Ayles said. "Our guys are pretty much all light-handed. We don't want to give anything away before the play is going, so we'll make every play look like it is going to be the same."
The staff is constantly monitoring the line, making sure those white knuckles never appear and tip off the defense.
"Coaches will yell at you once and then it better be fixed," Ayles said.
The line isn't the only key used by defenders for information. Cornerbacks can often tell what the play is just by observing the player right in front of them.
"I just straight watch the receiver and if he is going to block somebody, I am pretty sure it is going to be a run," Thomas said.
For the offense, precise execution is required to pull off the play-action pass.
"If you are watching a bunch of plays on film and you can tell whether it is a play action or a run, then it is a problem," Sanchez said. "If they start to look the same, especially those first five or six steps, and the boot, the fake, the mesh point, your head, then you are doing it right."
For the defense, players have to be constantly vigilant and quickly recognize any clues given away by the offense.
Understandably, defenders are not always willing to share the more secret tricks of the trade.
"I can't tell you that, seriously," Ellison said.