Shortly before seven o’clock the coaches led the Mustangs on to the field. Then, while the team went through calisthenics and warm-up exercises, Kevin was off by himself going through a series of Tai Chi forms, loosening his muscles and centering his focus. By seven-thirty, they were ready.
The actual kick off was scheduled for seven forty-five, and just before the team took the field Jennifer came over to Kevin and gave him a kiss on his cheek for good luck. Immediately afterwards the Mustang’s captains, Kevin, Mike Thomas, and Jerome Cannon approached the center of the field and were introduced by the official to their counterparts from the Dothan Wildcats.
Dothan won the toss and elected to receive. The Mustangs kicked off and stopped the return at Dothan’s thirty-five. At that point the Wildcat offense came on the field and proceeded to drive for their first score. Their offensive line was much bigger than the Mustang defense and just opened huge holes for their backs.
On the ensuing kickoff Dothan gambled the Mustangs wouldn’t be expecting an onside kick, and they were right. The kicker hit the ball at a funny angle, causing it to spin. It traveled over the heads of Ft Mac’s linemen and then just dropped, bouncing wildly toward the right side of the field. This play had obviously been practiced, as there was nothing but Wildcats around the ball when it landed.
Three plays later Dothan flooded the left side of the field with receivers. This drew most of the Mustang defensive backs to that area, while their quarterback hit the tight end coming across the middle. At that point the Wildcat wide receivers became blockers and no one touched the receiver before he crossed the goal line. Less than five minutes had transpired and the Mustangs were already down by fourteen. What was worse, they’d yet to even touch the ball.
Dothan kicked off again, but this time it went into the end zone for a touchback. Kevin led his team on to the field, taking possession on their own twenty yard line. On the first play Kevin pitched out to Jamar, but he immediately ran into a wall of defenders for a four yard loss. For the next two plays, it was just a repeat of the first - no matter what they tried, they ran into players waiting on them. The Dothan defensive players were not only bigger and stronger, they played with an almost reckless abandon. With fourth down the Mustangs punted. Dothan caught the ball on their thirty and returned the ball into Mustang territory. From there, they proceeded to move down the field for the third time.
While the defense was on the field Kevin, Coach Bryson, and Coach Brown huddled on the sideline discussing the situation.
A dejected Coach Bryson said, “Kevin, we don’t seem to be able to stop them, and they seem to know every play we’re trying to run.”
“Coach, I don’t think they can know our plays, but their size and their aggressiveness makes it easy for them to get into our backfield before the play can even start to develop. On that last hand off to Jamar I almost handed the ball off to their blitzing linebacker. He actually hit Jamar with my hand still holding the ball. What’s more, they seem to be keying on Jamar.”
Coach Brown responded, “They won’t be the first team to have tried that. It didn’t stop us before.”
“Coach,” said Kevin, “that’s true, but we’ve never played anyone with the size and speed of these guys. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that we were playing the Alabama Crimson Tide, not the Dothan Wildcats.”
Both coaches laughed at Kevin’s candid remark, but they also understood why he felt that way.
Finally, Coach Bryson said, “Kevin, I’m at a loss. Do you have any ideas?”
“Coach, try moving the defense from a four three to a three four and randomly stunt two or three of the linebackers on almost every play. I’d take Toby out except for very short yardage and move the two corners up to play as outside linebackers. I’d move our safeties up to replace the corner-backs and then put Jamar and the Terrell kid in as free roving safeties.”
A stunned Coach Brown exclaimed, “Kevin, it’d take us a month to get the line used to those changes. Add to that the fact Jamar has never played safety and Brian Terrell is a freshman. We’ll get blown away.”
“Maybe so, Coach, but that’s already happening. We’ve got to get them out of their rhythm and become unpredictable. As for Jamar, when we practice with the other players he often takes the safety position to give them the feel of having to play against a defender. He has good speed, good hands, and a keen mind. Brian, on the other hand is green, but he was also the hardest hitter on the team. He plays wide open, as well as having good speed and good hands. They’ll be our stoppers, and I suspect Jamar will have more than one interception while Brian will cause more than one fumble.”
A thoughtful Coach Bryson asked, “What about Jamar playing both sides? Won’t he get exhausted?”
“First, Jamar is in far better shape physically than most people know about, and second, from here on out he’ll be more of a decoy than the primary running back. I plan on using Dothan’s aggressiveness against them, though our play may look more like sandlot football than anyone is used to. Also, no more calls from the sideline. If we need to make changes, or you want me to run something special, send it in from the sideline. We’re going to run a hurry up offense and try to keep Dothan from getting set for every play. I don’t want the distraction of looking at the sideline for signals, especially when they’re decoys.”
Coach Bryson smiled at his young quarterback and said, “Son, I don’t see we’ve got anything to lose at this point. Have at it. Is there anything else?”
“Yes, Sir. Send Cory to join Coach Lawson in the press box. Tell them both to watch carefully for anything special any of Dothan’s players do that could tip us off as to their plans. Also, I want you to rotate our wide receivers more frequently, including the younger players. I want fresh legs on almost every play. Finally, I want Jason to move to a back’s position. I want two blockers in the backfield.”
“But Jason’s a guard, he’s never run the ball in his life.”
“Not quite true, but he is a fast pulling guard and heavier than most backs. He also played tailback for me in junior high before he went through a growth spurt.”
At this point, there was a loud cheer from the stands. Expecting to find out Dothan had scored again they were pleased to find Dothan had fumbled the ball instead. It was now the Mustang’s ball, starting on their own twelve yard line. Those cheers turned to confused silence as Kevin walked on the field and called time.
He then called everyone to the sideline and explained to the offense what he planned to do, and what was expected of them. To many, it didn’t make sense, but Kevin was their leader, and that was all that mattered. At the same time, Coach Bryson and the other coaches were working with the defense. Finally, the official came over and told them it was time to resume play. Once they got back to their place on the field, Tom Witherspoon, the center, called everyone into the huddle.
As soon as everyone was in place Kevin said, “We’re moving to a full house backfield, though I want it to look more like the wishbone, except when I move into the shotgun. Jason, you’ll join Ted as a second fullback, while Jamar will be the up back. Most of the time Jamar will be a decoy and another blocker while I’ll be using the fullbacks more to run the ball. I’ll be rolling out more, and I expect the wide receivers to pull their safety and cornerbacks deep. Tom, besides blocking as a tight end you’ll be my primary safety valve. Unless I give you a pattern to run you just work to get open and stay alert. Any questions?
“We’ll do our best,” was their answer.
“Good, then let’s run a variation of thirty-two right, and move it to student body left with Buck trailing as the option man. On two, break.”
The Mustangs moved into their positions. On the two count Kevin took the ball from Tom and took a step to his right. Jamar also went to the right, and Kevin pulled off a perfect fake by actually putting the ball in his best friend’s arms and then pulling it back out. Then, while the Wildcats pounced on Jamar, Kevin pivoted to follow the two blocking backs and one of the guards in the opposite direction. The only ones who weren’t fooled were the defensive end and the outside linebacker. To their credit they were both disciplined enough to stay ‘home’ instead of following the fake. Jason, the guard playing fullback and the pulling guard took out the end, but the linebacker fought off the block from the other running back and moved in to stop Kevin. Then, just before Kevin was hit he made a perfect pitch back to the trailing wide receiver and Buck was twenty-nine yards down field before he was forced out of bounds by the safety. The Mustang bench and fans went wild.
From there the Mustangs moved down the field to score. Then, after the extra point and the kickoff the revised Mustang defense came on to the field. With the changes Kevin had suggested the Wildcats were thrown out of their rhythm. Unfortunately, because they hadn’t practiced these new formations the Mustangs made some errors and eventually the Wildcats were able to score again.
In spite of the score Coach Bryson was realizing with each play the Mustang defense improved their execution. This improvement continued so that by half time Ft Mac had actually made the Wildcats punt a couple of times. In addition, Brian Terrell had caused two fumbles, even though one went out of bounds before the Mustangs could recover it.
In the locker room, even though they were behind thirty-five to twenty-one, an increasingly confident Ft Mac team discussed different problems and how to resolve them. Jamar had taken over the leadership of the defense and was working with the defensive coaches and players to shore up their ability to keep the Dothan offense out of sync and out of the end zone. At the same time, Kevin was working with the offense, discussing different approaches to use misdirection and counter plays to offset the Wildcat’s defensive speed and aggressiveness.
About ten minutes before the second half was to start Cory Williams, the Mustangs’ number two quarterback entered the locker room. He’d been assigned to the press box to look for subtle clues and habits that might help the Mustangs.
Kevin looked up when Cory entered, and asked, “Well, did you spot anything?”
“Did I ever. GS, you must be clairvoyant.”
Kevin yelled, “Hey, everyone, gather around and listen to what Cory has learned.”
With the rest of the team listening intently Cory said, “Let’s go down the list. First, their quarterback makes one of the stupidest mistakes I think I’ve ever seen. When he exits the huddle if it’s a pass play, he puts the tips of his right fingers in his mouth to wet them. Second, watch his feet when he lines up to take the snap. If the play is going to the right, his right foot is several inches behind his left one. If the play is going to the left, it’s just the opposite. If they’re equal, then he’s dropping straight back to pass. As for the tailback, if he’s carrying the ball he lines up about a foot further back than if he’s the decoy or if he’s blocking. Their wide receiver, King, sets up different if he’s the primary receiver and going deep. He sets up almost like a sprinter in track, but if he’s not expecting to catch the ball or isn’t going deep, then he stands up, with his hands on his knees. In addition, just before he makes a cut he moves his head slightly in the direction of his cut.”
“Wow!” exclaimed one of the players in the back of the room.
Kevin added, “I agree. Anything else?”
“Oh, yes. Their center moves the ball into a vertical position just prior to the snap on running plays, but leaves it sideways for passes. In addition, at least part of the time he actually lifts the ball and edges it forward. Coach Lawson said Jerome should point it out to the line judge. Then the next time he does it on a crucial down just blow through him. The best thing Dothan could hope for would be a penalty for drawing us offside. In actuality we’re likely to force a large loss or a fumble.”
Coach Bryson said, “Good job, Cory. That should give us an edge in stopping them more in the second half. What about help on the offense?”
“The primary thing Coach Lawson and I noticed was how they dealt with our counter plays. Their defensive ends and cornerbacks are holding a second to see which way the play begins while those on the opposite side stay home or cheat just a little to the inside. Coach says if we reverse our tight end and fullback’s blocking assignments they’ll be more effective. He also suggested we designate one player whose primary responsibility is the middle linebacker.”
Mike Thomas, the tight end, asked, “Cory, I’m not sure I follow you on the reversing blocking assignments. Can you elab ... explain?”
“You want me to elaborate?”
“Yeah, that’s the word.”
“Okay. Normally, you’d try to block the defensive end while Jason or Ted would take out the cornerback. Instead, Coach wants you to brush block the defensive end and then head for the outside linebacker or cornerback, pushing him back toward the center of the field. Then, whoever is the blocking back for that side is to get up a head of steam and go straight at the defensive end, putting him on the ground or at least moving him toward the sideline. Then, Kevin can pass, run or pitch out through the vacuum left behind.”
Coach Bryson said, “Excellent, but I’d make one suggestion to Mike and Kevin. Every so often let Mike slip past his intended block and have Kevin hit him about five yards past the defensive player. That’ll give Mike a chance to pick up some good yardage before the defensive man realizes Mike didn’t just miss the block.”
Turning to Kevin and Jamar, he asked, “Anything more you need to say?”
Jamar replied, “Yeah, let’s go kick some Wildcat butt!”
The second half was as wild as any college game anyone had ever seen. The primary difference was Cory’s observations plus Kevin’s arm and his uncanny ability to know where everyone was on the field. Finally, with less than thirty seconds on the clock and down by four Kevin saw Jamar get free, and hit him with a sixty-three yard pass.
The final score was fifty-nine to fifty-six, Mustangs. In addition to more than a hundred points the two teams had amassed more than twelve hundred yards in offense. It was definitely not a defensive struggle. Kevin and Jamar were carried off the field by their teammates and Kevin was given the MVP trophy.
Back in the locker room the celebration looked like it’d go on for hours, but Kevin quickly showered and dressed. As he explained to his friends he only had a short time with his Dad and wanted to make the most of it. He never mentioned Jennifer was also planning to spend the night.
After joining in one last cheer Kevin slipped out of the locker room. Jennifer and his Dad were waiting for him in the hall. The three quickly headed for the Colonel’s car, a dark blue Tahoe, and moments later they were on the Interstate headed back to Anniston. For the entire trip the three excitedly talked about the game and their plans for the next day.
Around eleven-thirty Kevin’s Dad stopped the Tahoe at the base of their driveway. The house was on a hill about sixty feet from the road. There was a five foot retaining wall at the edge of the property with steps leading through it and up to the house. The mailbox was in front of the steps. Kevin, got out and headed to get the mail. His Dad and Jennifer started up the hill, but the SUV stalled out. His Dad restarted it and drove up to the top of the hill.
While taking the mail out of the mailbox Kevin thought, Today I don’t have to take it inside and sort it out before going over to Jamar’s house for the night.
By the time the car came to a stop Kevin had gotten the mail and climbed the steps. When he was about five feet inside the wall his eye noted a flash of light from several houses away. For some reason he knew immediately what it was. Unfortunately, his scream of “No!” never made it past his lips before the Tahoe exploded and the force of the explosion blew him backward and over the retaining wall.