I’ve talked before about how, in football, each offensive play is carefully scripted to try to yield a successful result. And last week I also discussed how playing smart — a defense knowing what an offense might try, anticipating it, and stopping it before it happens — is a big part of being successful on defense.
During the Homecoming game last week against Penn, the Lions were struggling on offense for much of the game. The defense was bending, but not breaking, and had kept the score at a respectable 14-7 in the third quarter. I turned to someone standing near me and said, “The defense is going to need to force a turnover to get us back in this game.” (Because it was Homecoming, it is entirely possible that this random person had no idea what I was talking about.) The Lions did just that — defensive back Jeremy Mingo intercepted a Penn pass to cut their drive short and give the Lions the ball at the Columbia 13.
It was a chance to turn the game completely around. Unfortunately, it led to freshman quarterback Kelly Hilinski’s worst decision of the game.
To clarify what happened, I'll explain a family of passing routes called either “curl routes" or “out routes." On these plays, a receiver runs forward, then at a preset distance makes a sharp turn either back towards the ball (curl) or towards the sideline (out).
The idea of these plays is that, because the receiver knows what he’s planning to do but the defender does not, the receiver can surprise the defender when he makes his cut and get open. The window of time created to make these plays, though, is very small, so the routes rely on careful timing between quarterback and receiver. On curls in particular, the quarterback will often throw the ball before the receiver even makes his curl — the ball gets there a split-second after he turns around.
On the first play after Mingo’s big interception, Hilinski tried to hit a receiver on the far sideline running a curl route. Unfortunately, the Lions didn’t sell the throw well enough, and it’s hard to tell exactly why in the heat of the moment. Maybe the receiver ran a poor route — if you don’t run at full speed, it’s hard to get the defender to buy it. It’s also possible that the timing was off: Hilinski threw the ball too late or not in the right spot, giving the defender a chance to get to the ball. The third option, of course, is that Penn cornerback Evan Jackson is a good football player who knew the Lions’ tendency to run this pattern and adjusted accordingly.
Whichever of these factors you want to blame — and, like everything on the football field, it’s probably some combination of all three — the result of the play was a backbreaking interception by Penn, which led to their final touchdown of the game.
This play is evidence of why the Lions' offense has been struggling all year. Coach Pete Mangurian said that Hilinski needs to work on “the little things that go into each play — the kind of throw it is, where he needs to put it.” Against Dartmouth, we’ll be looking to see whether the timing between Hilinski and his receivers improves, and the passing game gets going for the first time this year.