by Jeff Laughlin
Good football games spend an inordinate amount of time lying to you. Most of the time, the best athletes on the field actually can’t excel unless they lie.
In football, the fan’s eye wanders with the ball rather than watching plays develop, so we see the truth — we see results rather than reason.
What athletes have to do on every play hides their imperfections and galvanizes the team’s strengths. Coaches must design plays that completely fool the other squad. Unlike basketball or soccer, which rely on keen presence and decisions based on movement, much of football’s activity has been drawn up months beforehand, the result of so much calculation that following the ball turns out to be the only choice for fans. The players without the ball methodically move like mindless drones, feasting on prior knowledge.
Guilford College knew their strengths well on Saturday. They hosted Bridgewater (Va.) in a conference matchup that told a tale of two programs with serious maladies.
Guilford did not want to pass. They ran misdirection play after misdirection play. They lied only about which way they wanted to run. And when they did pass, it was as short a throw as possible to a wideout with speed. Quarterback Matt Pawlowski played like a glorified running back so often that I smiled when the press box announced his runs as “QB keepers.”
Whatever lies they told, they worked early. Guilford jumped out to a 14-0 lead — surprising since Bridgewater looked decent in their first two conference contests. The stats told a story that no one in attendance would believe. Guilford led by two touchdowns, but didn’t really make a stop for the rest of the half. Bridgewater ran down Guilford’s defense and looked really good doing it. They exposed Guilford at every hole imaginable with a myriad of rushers and, when forced into passing downs, exposed Guilford’s corners as well.
Bridgewater’s first touchdown drive energized them. They began blowing up obvious screens and stacking the line of scrimmage. They dared Guilford to lie to them; the Eagles practically begged the Quakers to pass. Guilford College could not.
Bridgewater tied the score at 21 before taking a possession much deeper than expected to end the second quarter. In a mere 24 seconds, they crossed the 50 and looked poised to put up a workable Hail Mary. The way the game had progressed, the crowd actually seemed nervous it would work. But time worked against the Eagles and Guilford escaped with a tie at the half.
That score, in and of itself, lied to the crowd. Bridgewater had been the much better team going into the break, and the second half started ominously for the Quakers. Bridgewater QB Matthew Pisarcik began passing, an unexpected twist for the Guilford defense. The running game had been working so well, but the Eagles adjusted anyway.
It worked. The passing game gained chunks of yardage while Bridgewater sprinkled in five-yard runs.
Both teams ran the no-huddle offense for most of the game — an effective tool to keep defenses on their toes. It worked most effectively for Bridgewater when they threw over the top, but on three different occasions they dropped passes either in or near the end zone.
Therein lay the lie.
Bridgewater’s momentum, the huge swing that moved the Guilford lead to nothing, also led them to their downfall. Instead of pounding the Guilford defense, they tried to fool the world into thinking they could pass. It led to lengthy possessions that ultimately failed.
Meanwhile, Guilford stuck to what they knew. QB runs and short passes ruled the day. Josh Schow ran for one of his three touchdowns to take his team to another 14-point lead, 35-21. Guilford’s final scoring drive looked like a dagger — it took four minutes off of the clock, leaving 4:19 to go. Bridgewater would have to score quickly and get either an onside kick or an incredibly quick stop to have any chance.
That’s exactly what Bridgewater got. After struggling through the fourth quarter, the ball deceived us. They marched down the field to an easy score, got the onside kick and marched down the field again. Down 35-28, they moved the ball inside the Guilford 10-yard line.
Then it happened: the biggest lie of them all. In a game dominated by offense, Guilford made two consecutive stops to the middle of the field. Bridgewater abandoned the misdirection and the passing game that had fooled Guilford. They went to the simplest play in the game.
They dove. And they lost. The Quaker defense shouted and jumped about joyously, their previous foibles forgotten. They were the game’s heroes.
The crowd ate the scene up — who wouldn’t? The game’s most exciting play had fooled us all into believing that defense beats all. That’s good football.
Momentarily, football convinced us that defense existed and for that brief moment, everyone in the stadium understood the game perfectly. For two Division III programs, we asked only for good football. They provided the truth.