It was the Tuesday before football’s last game of the 2016 season, but offensive coordinator Mark Fabish was presenting his wide receivers with a new offensive wrinkle.
For the first time, all 11 of the Lions’ offensive players on the field against Brown would be wearing wristbands with a list of possible plays. The objective was simple—efficiency.
In previous games, players were responsible for memorizing groups of individual plays. The Light Blue coaches and the quarterback then called one particular play through a sometimes-lengthy series of audibles and visual signals. The wristbands eliminated the need for such complexity, allowing the offense to stop focusing on the playbook and direct its attention to executing on the field. Play calls simply consisted of a formation and a wristband number, which narrowed the number of potential plays down to three. Once the Lions set up on the line of scrimmage, junior quarterback Anders Hill completed the play call with a one-word audible in response to the defensive look Brown was showing. That final audible guided each player to the specific call on his wristband, and the snap usually came just a few seconds later.
The wristbands represented Fabish’s attempt to build on the previous week’s effort against Cornell. Though the Lions ultimately fell short in a 42-40 loss, they amassed a season-high 562 yards on offense, including 165 on the ground. In order to keep the momentum going, Fabish knew he would have to adjust to a Brown defense that ranked third in the Ivy League against the run going into the game.
The adjustment paid off, as Columbia’s offense put together its second consecutive impressive performance en route to a 31-13 victory over the Bears. Fabish and Hill pushed all the right buttons, guiding the Lions to 419 yards of total offense.
Columbia’s passing attack did most of its damage in the first half, allowing the Lions to cruise to a 21-6 halftime lead. That allowed Fabish and his staff to be more conservative in their second-half play calling as they shifted towards the ground game, hoping to keep the clock moving and to avoid disastrous mistakes.
That approach placed an emphasis on the Light Blue’s running game for the majority of the second half. Senior running back Alan Watson and the rest of the Columbia ball carriers responded, racking up 110 rushing yards in the final two quarters and 197 for the game as a whole.
A crucial component of the Light Blue’s offensive success was forcing Brown’s defense to tip its hand early. In non-football parlance, that means Columbia had sought to bait the Bears into showing what defensive play they were going to run before the snap. During any high-level football game, the action at the line of scrimmage prior to the snap is often akin to a chess match. Myriad adjustments—most of which are lost on the average viewer––occur via audibles, motions, and hand signals on both sides of the ball.
By calling the final play based on Brown’s initial defensive formation, Fabish sought to eliminate the Bears’ ability to adjust. With only a short amount of time between Hill’s final audible and the snap, any defensive adjustments ran the risk of leaving Brown’s players confused about their responsibilities once the play was live––a surefire recipe for conceding big plays.
As a result, the Bears’ defense was largely unable to show varied looks, allowing the Lions’ offense to reliably exploit the tendencies they had identified through film study.
Of those tendencies, three were especially central to Columbia’s game planning—heavy formations against the run, man coverage, and consistent pressure. Fabish emphasized the importance of the read-option on the ground to counter the Bears’ focus on stopping the run. That meant Hill had to make the proper read on the exchange, with the junior quarterback looking to create misdirection to deceive Brown’s defensive linemen.
In the passing game, the Light Blue wide receivers needed to earn clean releases in order to beat aggressive press-man coverage from Brown’s cornerbacks. The threat of the deep pass would prompt softer coverage, opening up short and underneath routes.
Come Saturday, the offense responded on both counts. On Columbia’s first drive of the day, Fabish dared Brown to stop Columbia’s ground game, calling 11 rushes and just three passes. The Bears were not up to the challenge, as the Lions marched 80 yards over 14 plays en route to a one-yard touchdown from first-year running back Tanner Thomas.
Five different players carried the ball for the Light Blue, with Hill keeping the ball himself three consecutive times at one point. However—in a preview of what was to come—the junior signal-caller also connected with first-year wide receiver Josh Wainwright on an out-breaking route along the sideline for a gain of 20 yards.
From there, Columbia took to the air. Wainwright repeatedly beat Brown’s corners down the seam and on crossing routes, and Hill found him three more times in the half. Each catch went for a big play, as the first-year tallied touchdowns of 46 and 16 yards, along with a 47-yard reception. Wainwright would also convert a crucial third-and-15 early in the fourth quarter with the Lions in ball-control mode.
By the time the smoke had cleared in the first half, Columbia held a commanding 21-6 lead. Brown managed to slow the Light Blue offense somewhat in the second half, but the damage was done.
The Bears were unable to draw any closer than eight points, and Fabish’s final play call of the 2016 season—a 69-yard touchdown run by senior running back Alan Watson—secured Columbia’s third and final victory.