Officially, Adam Cushing’s head coaching career began with a loss. His debut season at Eastern Illinois will go on, future seasons will arrive, and Chattanooga 24, EIU 10 will be just another result in the 120-year history of Panther football. In the moment, the score is top of mind. EIU was beaten, and it’ll regroup, figure out what went wrong and try to correct it.
Beneath the surface result, the game offered a peek into a less common and particularly fascinating permutation of football. It pitted two first-time head coaches against each other in their debuts, both possessing limited to little knowledge of the other’s scheme, identity and tendencies. The preparation for such a game involves more guesswork, and the separation of scheme and personnel is an odd wrinkle that’s not entirely comfortable.
But this game revealed the advantages of being an unknown aren’t as pronounced as they would seem. Football is a personnel game first, and that showed on the Finley Stadium turf for three hours Thursday night, when Chattanooga’s NFL prospect quarterback and preseason All-American wide receiver played to their billing.
EIU, with its rookie offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator eight years removed from his last time in that role, had the upper hand in unknowns. Chattanooga’s staff had zero film of EIU’s schemes and tendencies, yet the Mocs led throughout the game and won.
“We weren’t really surprised or caught off-guard, and we saw what we saw from players,” EIU defensive coordinator Chris Bowers said Sunday. “We saw a really good quarterback and a receiver make some plays we were concerned he’d make.”
That is, most of all, how a seemingly stellar plan can go awry, or in this case, take a backstage. By the time kickoff arrived, EIU’s staff felt thoroughly prepared — over-prepared, really — while Chattanooga’s spent its time guessing.
“I didn’t sleep too well this past week,” Chattanooga head coach Rusty Wright said.
Bowers, meanwhile, watched 14 of Chattanooga offensive coordinator Joe Pizzo’s games from his prior two stops, Mercer and Division II North Greenville. It’s not ideal — the preference is to watch personnel and scheme at once, he said — but it sufficed.
“He’s a veteran coordinator,” Bowers said earlier in the week. “To a certain degree, he’s going to do what he does.”
It’s a Wednesday early evening, eight days before the game, and EIU’s defensive staff is gathered in Bowers’ office, video screen pulled down with film projected on it. Defensive line coach Deonte Gibson peels back the wrapper on an ice cream sandwich, which will serve as his dinner for the time being. It’s a relaxed gathering, but everyone is here already prepped and having watched video on their own with something to offer.
I’m embedded here to learn how a staff prepares for a first-time head coach’s first game and a coordinator in his first game at a new stop. Observing EIU’s preparation for Pizzo is, in a way, a less extreme proxy of Chattanooga’s study of Bowers and EIU offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski. The difference is Pizzo’s 22 straight years as a coordinator and Mocs defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward’s seven years in the FBS in the same role. I’ll listen, ask questions, identify key elements of Pizzo’s offense based on EIU’s breakdown and revisit everything after the game. I’ve chosen to spotlight EIU’s defense vs. Chattanooga’s offense.
Pizzo and Bowers have never met. Neither is even a friend of a friend who might shed light on the other’s philosophy. All they can do is watch film. Pizzo’s prior stops will reveal schemes and tendencies on down and distances. Chattanooga’s 2018 film will be used to study personnel.
The white board in Bowers’ office is set up like grid paper, with each down and distance on one axis and each personnel grouping on the other. Under each down and distance is a tendency. Someone had previously watched film, taken notes and done the unenviable math to conclude that on second down, Pizzo passes 91 percent of the time after a run and 69 percent of the time after a pass.
Wednesday’s meeting lasts from the early afternoon until well into the night. Despite its laid-back nature, it consists of hours of pouring over endless minutiae. At one point, Bowers gets a call from his wife and tells her he’s not sure when he will be home.
In the early evening, EIU is studying Pizzo’s offense from the opponent’s 30-yard line to the end zone. Gibson pulls out 10 plays and formations that stood out to him. One of them is an unbalanced line look that sets up an outside zone running play.
“They’re going to line up in this, if I’m a betting man,” Bowers says.
The outside zone is perhaps the staple of Pizzo’s offenses from, and he runs it from endless formations.
Later, they encounter a trick play from a North Greenville game, where a tight end catches a lateral and chucks an endzone shot. It’s snapped from the 24-yard line. Bowers sees it and tells an assistant to check and see if either of Chattanooga’s tight ends was a high school quarterback or baseball player. Neither one on the depth chart is. The play seems unlikely to show up in the game, the staff concludes. They’ll practice against it at some point, though.
“It could be a cheap score,” Bowers theorizes.
This is the neurotic part of preparing for a coordinator’s first game a new school. It’s impossible to know what Pizzo will do with Chattanooga’s personnel. The spread offense and outside zone runs are a common thread between his offenses at North Greenville and Mercer. So is his predilection for calling shot plays between the opponent’s 35- and 25-yard lines, which Bowers notes.
“This is how they score,” Bowers says, “They hit chunks.”
There are some differences, though, and they can’t be ignored.
Five days later, on Monday night of game week, Bowers replays more film in his office by himself. He notices an empty backfield set only on Mercer tape. Is this a new wrinkle Pizzo added, or the Mercer head coach’s influence?
“We probably won’t see this,” Bowers starts, “but if you watched our practice this week…”
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He gestures next to his computer toward his defensive playcall sheets. Somewhere on there is a call for an empty set, even though the need is unlikely to arise.
On weeks where EIU will prepare for a coordinator with prior time with his current team, Bowers will mainly have the scout team run only what they see on film from that school and keep a couple calls handy that would work against it, just in case. Watching scheme only is awkward, especially for Bowers, who spent the previous eight years as Northwestern’s director of player personnel watching, well, players. On a particular North Greenville play, it’s pointed out to Bowers that an opposing edge rusher burst past the left tackle with ease.
“Ordinarily I’d notice that,” Bowers says, before pointing out the obvious that North Greenville’s left tackle does not play for Chattanooga.
Bowers wonders what he thinks Pizzo knows about him. Did he unearth grainy video from his erstwhile defenses? Bowers thinks there’s a small chance. His assumption is that Pizzo watched some of Northwestern’s defense, a move rooted in a presumed hypothesis that his defense will resemble Mike Hankwitz’s Wildcats’ unit. Whatever Pizzo is doing, Bowers isn’t taking victory laps celebrating his secrecy.
“I’m not running some version of the defensive triple option,” he says. “There’s nothing we’ll run that he hasn’t seen in 22 years as a coordinator.”
Turns out, Bowers was correct. Pizzo said he didn’t even try to look for old video from Bowers’ time at Division II Concord University (2010) and Division III Defiance College (2007-08). It was too hard to find and probably out of date — coordinators evolve over the years.
“Our plan was to go in with a basic game plan, stuff that we felt like we could run no matter how they lined up,” Pizzo told the JG-TC by phone the day after the game. “We did watch a little bit of what Northwestern did last year. But we really didn’t know. We just carried basic stuff and told our guys to execute as best they can.”
The game’s first few series go as expected for a tussle in which one team does not know anything about the other’s personnel. That Northwestern film Chattanooga’s staff watched? Useless. Bowers’ defense didn’t share many of its tenants. Blitzes were different, Pizzo said. Coverages too. They rotated between three- and four-man defensive lines.
Unsurprisingly, EIU saw plenty of outside zone runs. The Panthers were ready. They held Chattanooga running back Tyrell Price to 13 yards on eight carries through four drives. They allowed a touchdown in there, but only after a muffed punt gave Chattanooga the ball inside the 15-yard line. In the end, EIU allowed just 94 rushing yards and 2.8 yards per carry.
“We more stopped it because we had some guys up front play well enough to stop it,” Bowers said a couple days after the game. “Did my prep for the outside zone impact or ability to stop the run more than Terrell Greer playing really well? No.”
None of it overwhelmed Pizzo, though. He had been here before. He scribbled on his notepad in the booth and relayed his musings to coaches and players. He deciphered EIU’s intentions before the end of the first quarter.
“I was very nervous,” Pizzo said. “You really can’t change schemes. It’s hard to say, ‘We’re a zone team now and we’re going to become a gap scheme team.’ You can’t do that in a game, especially in a situation where it’s our first season too and we don’t have the whole offense installed.
“I tried to turn it into a personnel game, like, ‘I think this guy is matched up good against their safety, or our running back is going to be pretty good on this play.’”
And there, essentially, is what can crush the advantage of Bowers’ total secrecy and meticulous preparation. His old boss, Pat Fitzgerald, drilled a saying into his head: Players, formations, plays. It’s a cliché around EIU’s offices, but in this game, is too accurate. When Pizzo figured out how to get his star quarterback and wide receiver going, everything changed.
Bryce Nunnelly caught his first pass of the night from Nick Tiano early in the second quarter, a harmless 8-yard reception in a three-and-out series. His second catch, though, flipped everything. It was a 59-yard touchdown catch, a coverage mistake on EIU’s end but also one pretty toss and route. Nunnelly ended the game with 100 yards on six catches, while Tiano averaged 9.5 yards per pass.
That long bomb was one of only four “explosive plays” allowed, according to Bowers’ review. Outside of those, EIU resembled a prepared, assignment-sound defense. Chattanooga had just one drive that lasted more than 10 plays. EIU, despite losing by two touchdowns, had nine more first downs.
“Really proud of how well we tackled,” Bowers said. “When you watch openers, teams don’t tackle well because there’s not a lot of live tackling in camp with your best players. I was proud to see they responded to that emphasis.”
But those darn chunk plays. Chattanooga had two scoring drive on which it averaged at least 10 yards per play. EIU had zero.
“They took their shots and they hit them,” Bowers said. “That’s Joe’s MO and it fits with that personnel. Despite emphasizing it, it still happened to a degree. It wasn’t a surprise to us, but you still have to execute.”
All told, holding a quarterback some regard as a real pro prospect to four explosive plays isn’t horrid. It’s impossible to make that number zero. Allow 10 of them, as EIU did to so many of its opponents last year, and there’s a problem.
“We can coach it better, we can teach it better, we can be better on defense,” Bowers said. “But I don’t feel like we had a bad night. I don’t think our players or coaches had a bad night. But obviously it wasn’t good enough to win.”
A good plan in an unusual situation didn’t outright fail. Instead, EIU left Chattanooga with a reminder that great players can nullify excessive preparation or advantage of mystery.
Players, formations, plays indeed.