Author: Eric Strutz
Originally Published: May 7, 2007
I went into the 2006 season knowing it would be my last with the Comets. Work and family demands made it impossible for me to continue to meet the time commitment. I knew could coach one more year as an OC or an offensive line coach. I’d had a really good run with this organization and it was going to hurt to leave. In 6-1/2 seasons as a Comets OC and HC, the teams I’d coached had a 44-16 record. In 4½ seasons of running the Single-Wing we were 36-7. We’d been to the championship game 3 times and won it twice. The Comets president asked me to stay at the Middleweight (11-12’s) level as OC. The new Middleweight HC (Randy) had been the Lightweight HC in 2005 and he was bringing the Lightweight DC (Bubba) and B-Team DC (Ken) with him. I’d known Bubba since the 2000 season when his oldest son played for me. At the sign ups we started talking smack at each other about how we were going to kick the other guy’s butt in practice. Our 2005 Middleweight O-line Coach (Ralph) would return as well along with our game spotter/conditioning coach (Kelly) and B-Team OC (Mark).
We held our preseason offensive skills (single-wing intense) clinic in June. The clinic is instructive for the players, but it also gives us an early read on our talent. Several of the 11-year old linemen from our ‘05 teams were too big to play at Middleweight as 12-year olds in ’06. They were going to be tough to replace. We had one 11-year old move in who snapped so well he was head & shoulders above any single-wing center I’d ever coached. Two of our B-teamers from ’05 had matured a lot physically and looked like sure starters. Unfortunately you can’t play a 3 man offensive line, so Ralph and I knew that we had a lot of work to do to get our o-line where it needed to be. We looked like we’d be deep in the backfield with 5 returning A-Teamers, including a stud TB and fast WB. We also were going to have a strong and fast 11-year old fullback (BB) and a bunch of small, but fast 11 year olds.
Although we had great success with the T-series from 2001-2003, we didn’t run it in 2005. In 2005 we had success with the Spin series from spread. Going into the ’06 season, I didn’t see a really good spinback or a talented passer early on, so I decided we’d run mainly tight and we’d use a lot of T-series. When we did go to spread we’d use an explode shift to get cheap offside penalties. I was also determined to put in a quick passing game from spread. We had tried to get this done in ’05, but failed to make it an effective part of the offense.
When practice started at the end of July we put the boys on the scale and found out that our returning TB was 12 lbs. over the ball-carrier limit. His dad immediately moved him up to Heavyweight. After three practices our best player was gone. We needed a team leader to replace him at starting TB. A couple kids tried to lobby for it. Our 2005 WB was the only choice from my perspective. He was small, but he had good speed and quickness. He had the other qualities we needed too — a hitter, a team player and a natural leader. To replace him at WB we choose a tall, wiry, physical player with decent speed and good passing and receiving skills.
After trying everyone out at everything, we opted for a small fast pulling guard and rotating QB’s (SW FB’s). I liked the idea of rotating backs to bring in the plays when I first saw Coach Hofer do this with his 1998 state championship team at Menominee. Our QB’s both ran very well up the middle, but they didn’t run hard off tackle. I wasn’t happy with them as lead blockers, but they had talent and I figured the rotation would be a good competition that would improve their play. The fact that they were both left-handed would make it easier for them to throw our weakside power pass. We put a “QB type” at QE. He didn’t have great speed, but he showed good hands and he was tall. I was worried about his aggressiveness as a blocker, but he showed some promise as QB for our Spread passing.
In our preseason scrimmages the boys were making a lot of big plays in Bubba’s 4-4 “Fire & Ice” defense. Occasionally we lost contain and we gave up a few too many big passes, but we looked good. On offense we looked OK, but our line wasn’t as physical as they needed to be. Even so, we did more than hold our own against a tough 11-12 year old team and an average 13-year old team, both from outside of our league. This really boosted the confidence of our players.
In our opening B-Team games, we hammered a weak opponent and ground out a win against a decent one. Our B-Teams had a great season, with a combined 11-1 record. It was clear in the opening games that there were a few kids on the B teams that might help the A teams before the season was over. Two 12 year olds really stood out. One had never played football and the other hadn’t played since he was 9. Both were pretty fast and played physical football.
In the opening A-Team game, our QB’s surprised me by shredding the Badgers defense and scoring 3 first half TD’s on T-Series QB Wedge plays. Our TB threw a Sweep Pass to the WB for a TD and the WB completed a nice T-Series WB Pass to the QE for another big gain. A backup WB (our fastest player) had a nice run on a Counter and our backup TB had a nice TD run on a TB Wedge. Our #1 play, TB Off Tackle, was successful throughout the game, but we didn’t break any really big plays on it. Final score was 41-6. It was sweet revenge against the program that hammered us in the 2005 Super Bowl.
In game #2, we went on the road to face the Wolves. We started with a methodical opening drive for a TD. On this drive, our TB tore through some big holes on the Power Off Tackle. On the first play of our 2nd offensive series we knew they’d adjust to stop the Power so we threw a Sweep Pass to the WB for an easy TD. We had another long slow TD drive in the 2nd quarter to make it 20-0 at the half. In the 2nd half we struggled on offense due to turnovers and penalties. We only managed one more TD on offense. Our defense showed great pursuit, good coverage and good tackling throughout the game. A backup LB put the hit of the season on a kid late in the game. It was one that made everyone in the stadium wince. Fortunately the “hittee” wasn’t injured. The final score was 26-0.
One of our 12-year old B-Teamers had been unstoppable at QB in week 2, so we moved him permanently to the A-Team. I still wasn’t happy with either of our starting QB’s lead blocking, so I put the new guy into a 3-man QB rotation. We looked good in practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, but Thursday turned out to be the worst day of my life. My mom passed away that day. I probably shouldn’t have coached the game vs. the Indians on Sunday, but I felt like I needed to. The Comets had a moment of silence for my mom and another coach’s mom who had also passed away that week. We gave the Indians a heavy dose of Power Off Tackle, TB Wedge and T-Series Counter. The lead blocking left something to be desired, but our TB ran through arm tackles and the Indians bit on our fakes. The WB scored on a long run on a Counter and we cruised to a 19-0 halftime lead. We substituted freely in this game, but our execution in the 2nd half was disappointing and we failed to score. Our defense gave up a long TD drive that ate most of the 4th quarter. The final was 19-6. Bubba, Randy, Ralph and I were not happy with our team’s 2nd half effort because we knew we’d have to play much better in game #4 to win.
The Bulldog team we were about to face had won the 2004 Lightweight Super Bowl. I had scouted them early in the year and they didn’t really look all that impressive. They were big and they had a couple fast kids, but they weren’t spectacular. They did have about the best youth league kicker/punter I’d ever seen though. At the weigh-in of our game with them we noticed that they had a very athletic looking kid (#20) that did not play in the game I had scouted. They must have suspected they were being scouted that day because they did a lot more offensively against us than in the game I scouted.
There was a steady pouring rain that day and the field conditions deteriorated as the game went on. We started with a long slow grinding drive that ate the entire 1st quarter. We punched it in early in the 2nd to take a 6-0 lead. But we missed the 2-point kick. The Bulldogs came back with a long TD on a swing pass to #20. We just blew the coverage. Their kicker drilled the extra point to put us behind 8-6. Then we fumbled his deep kickoff. We were lucky to recover it, but we were pinned deep in our own territory. After a procedure penalty and 3 poorly executed plays inside our 10, we punted for the first time in the season. The Bulldogs came back with some nice runs on short passes and almost scored again just before the half. Early in the 3rd quarter, they scored right away on another swing pass to #20. Thankfully they missed the kick and it was 14-6. We continued to struggle with penalties and sloppy execution, but in the 4th quarter we mounted another long drive. Our QE had made a couple beautiful catches in this game and now he made a nice throw to the TB on a quick screen. I thought he would score, but one of the Bulldogs pushed him just hard enough to make him step out of bounds at the 5. I called a T-Series QB Wedge, but our QB got too excited and fumbled the ball away. We got another shot with about 2:00 left, but our QE under-threw Spread Wheel Pass and the Bulldogs picked it off. We got one more chance with just a few seconds left in the game. We tried a T-Series WB Sweep from their 5. The WB tried to cut it up just a little early and muscle his way in, but he got tackled at the 1-foot line as time ran out. It was maddening to lose the game when we had the chance to force OT, but the fact was that Bulldogs had totally outplayed us in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. It was clear that we had a lot of work to do.
The following week we played the Giants at home. They had a few good players, but they couldn’t match us physically and we beat them 33-0. The TB Off Tackle, both from Power and T-Series (counter) were our main offensive weapons. The Raiders couldn’t do anything vs. our defense.
Game 6 would be at home vs. the 5-0 Raiders. Throughout the season, I had been disappointed in our ability to get outside, so in practice that week we put in the Buck Lateral Sweep. I was pleased with the hand-to-hand exchange and with the FB’s ability to make the toss. The Raiders were a big team. They had fast RB’s and their QB had a good arm. They played solid defense and were unscored upon in 5 games. We knew we were capable of beating them, but on this day we didn’t get it done. The Raiders played very aggressively and we should have been able to make big plays with misdirection plays and play action passes. We picked up some few first downs, but every drive stalled due to poor execution and penalties. Our defense played well in the first half, but our special teams killed us. Late in the 2nd quarter, thanks to a mishandled punt and a penalty, we had a 4th and 15 inside from our 5. We decided to punt, but we allowed penetration up the middle and the kick was blocked. The Raiders took a 6-0 lead. On the first series of the 3rd quarter they swept around the right side of our defense. Their kid made a great run and we missed 4 or 5 tackles as he went 65 yards for a TD to make it 13-0. Early in the 4th quarter we finally sustained a drive. We ground out 3 yards and a cloud of dust, with one big gain on a Buck Lateral. We were able to punch it in to make it 13-6, but that was it for the scoring.
Our 2 losses convinced me that we really needed to make some changes in the o-line. Our QT and PE hadn’t played physical football vs. the Bulldogs or the Raiders. We had to correct this so we moved the two best 12-year old former B-teamers to starting PE and OG and moved our starting OG to QT. The OG was a tough kid that had made the hit of the year in game #2. He had broken his hand in the last B-team game, but he was determined to play the rest of the season with a heavily padded cast. The PE was taken out of the 3-man QB rotation. He was talented, but had missed some practices and even some games. He blocked the position well and it turned out that he was also an excellent receiver. It broke my heart to bench the two kids, but they just weren’t getting it done on the field against tougher opponents. They’re great kids and they have potential to be good players. At the same time we made these moves, one of our B-Team Tackles got under the pulling weight and was starting to play well consistently on both sides of the ball. We decided to work him in for about 25% of the plays on both offense (at IG) and defense (DT & DE). These changes really solidified and added depth to both our offense and defense. By this time Bubba had a bunch of kids playing really aggressively in the d-line and at LB. Our 11-year old sure tackling ILB and our physical 12-year old DT were dominant down the stretch of the season.
In game 7 we traveled to face our arch-rival, the Hawks. They were a well-coached team with some talent, but the changes we’d made that week made us a much better football team. We moved the ball well with T Series QB Wedge plays and scored on a Spin FB Wedge. It was 8-0 after the kick. We threw a pick on our next series, but our defense shut the Hawks down. We ran the whole T Series with some Power mixed in on another long TD drive to make it 14-0. Our defense took away the run so the Hawks threw a lot. They completed a few, but not enough to sustain a drive. We had another nice T Series intense TD drive with most of the yards on QB Wedge plays. Our backup WB put it in the end zone on a T-Series Weakside Sweep to make it 22-0 after making the kick. The Hawks scored late in the game, but we felt great about our performance in a 22-6 win.
In the quarterfinals we faced the Stingers. They had only fair talent, but they were well coached. In the past, every decent Stinger team used trick plays. In practice we ran double passes, hook & ladders, speed option, statue of liberty, double reverses and odd formations. The Stingers kicked off to us. We rolled over them slowly on the opening drive to the 18. On 3rd and short, we hit the QE wide open in the end zone on the T Series WB Pass. Missed the kick (6-0). Our defense stuffed them, but we roughed the punter and had to stuff them again. When we got the ball back we went through them like a hot knife through butter. Power Off Tackle, Wedges (T Series QB, Power TB and Spin FB) and then Buck Lateral to get outside. We scored on a T Series QB Wedge and we hit the kick (14-0). After forcing a punt, we tried to rush up the field passing, but turned it over on downs in 4 plays. The Stingers predictably came back with weird formations, hook & ladder plays, and double passes to score (14-7). We moved the ball again, but we ran out time in the half. We mixed our T Series plays with Power Off Tackle, Motion FB Wedge and Spin FB Wedge on the opening drive of the 3rd quarter and scored easily to make it 20-6. The Stingers spread it out and kept trying to pass, but turned it over on downs. We slammed it at them and then popped the fast backup WB untouched for a long TD on a Counter (28-7). They came back with nice pass plays against our backups and scored to make it 28-13. But we knew they couldn’t stop us at this point. A Power Off Tackle and 4 straight Wedges (2 TB, 1 QB) set up another long WB Counter TD, this one by the starting WB (34-13).
We got another shot vs. the undefeated South Division Champion Raiders in the semis. The Raiders Heavyweights had mercilessly hammered our Heavies the week before and some things were said that created animosity between our organizations. I was afraid our kids might be distracted by it. But I was more worried about the way the Raiders had pushed us around in our regular season meeting. Ralph and I reminded our linemen of that fact all week in practice. Randy, Bubba, Ralph and I carefully studied the video of our loss to the Raiders in week #6. On offense we needed to control their Left DT and their SS. We put the pressure on our WB and PT to handle them one-on-one on Power Off Tackle plays. We also decided to use our bigger IG a lot more on wedge plays. We also started using our starting WB as a blocker at QE on the T Series Sweep so we could our faster backup WB outside with the ball. Our linemen came out determined to be the aggressors this time.
After a scoreless tie in regulation, the Raiders Lightweights scored to beat our Lightweights 6-0. As we were watching and waiting, a yellow jacket stung our starting TB near his left eye. We got ice on it right away, but I told the backup to be ready to play. Our starting TB was also our starting Safety and the leader of our football team. He was small, but so tough that Randy called him “Nails”. He played a great game.
The only score the Raiders had allowed all year was the one we scored in week 6, but we changed that with a methodical 60-yard drive for a TD. It was the first time in 3 seasons that this group of Raider players found themselves trailing in a football game. The rest of the first half went back and forth. Both teams moved the ball well with a mix of runs and passes. They were running some nice spread shotgun plays and we were finally able to complete a pass or two. Their drives stalled on big defensive plays by us and a dropped pass. Ours stalled on some weak wedge blocking and a fumble by our WB. It was 6-0 at the half. The Raiders moved the ball with power running early in the 3rd but got hit for a holding penalty and then shanked a 15-yard punt. We stopped ourselves with fumbles and penalties in the 3rd quarter. They moved the ball well on us early in the 4th quarter, but our defense came up with some big plays to force a turnover on downs at our 25. We took over with 5:30 left in the game and sustained a great drive to eat the clock. We ground it out with 3 or 4 yards on every play. Our starting WB made a key first down on a Counter. We drove to their 10-yard line and took a knee to end the game. For the 2nd straight season, the Comets middleweights had defeated a previously unbeaten Raider team to make it to our league’s “Super Bowl”.
We would get a chance to try to avenge our loss to the undefeated Bulldogs. As an OC, this would be my 4th championship game in 5½ seasons of running single-wing. Our 2001 and 2002 teams were dominating. I was very confident that we’d win those games and we did. In 2005, I knew we’d have to play our best to stay in the game. We didn’t play well and got whipped. In 2006, we’d be in an evenly matched contest. We were pretty sure that the Bulldogs expected to be facing the Raiders. The Bulldogs finished the regular season 7-0 and had 2 easy playoff wins. The only close game they’d had all season was against us. They were big, they had some talented backs and they had taken good care of the football all season.
Reviewing the video of our loss to the Bulldogs, I saw that no one went our man in motion. It looked like we could run our weakside QB Power and FB Counter Wedge. The CB had been making the tackles on the FB Counter Wedge so, we’d keep the WB at home to screen him. I also thought we could get outside of them with a T Series WB Sweep if we set it up the QB Wedge plays. We moved our starting WB to QE on this play to upgrade the POA blocking and had the faster backup WB carry the ball. I also planned to run the Buck Lateral Sweep, since we had put it in after our first game with the Bulldogs. Bubba and Randy seemed confident that they had the Bulldogs offense figured out. They switched to a 5-3 with all 5 d-linemen down. The plan was to stuff their running game and pressure their QB.
The game would be at the Hawks home field and conditions couldn’t have been much worse. It had rained a lot and the high school team had torn up the field on Saturday afternoon. The day of the game was very windy and cold. The field had a high crown and the footing was terrible. We kicked to them and they returned it to the 47. On their first play they fumbled the handoff on a reverse and we recovered. Our boys ground out a 40-yard, 10-play TD drive with the backup TB slamming it in on a Power Wedge. This kid ran the play beautifully all season. We missed the kick… again. Our defense stuffed the Bulldogs on the next series and they punted. After our FB made a nice run on a Counter Wedge, we had first down on the Bulldog 40 as the 2nd quarter began. I called the T Series WB Sweep and we executed it beautifully. The backup WB broke into the clear and took into the end zone untouched, but the referee called our starting WB for holding. After seeing it on video, I think it was a “ticky-tack” call. We ended up with a 4th and 12, and called a Spin WB Pass. The PE was open deep, but the ball slipped out of the WB’s hand as he threw and fell incomplete. We stopped the Bulldogs again at about midfield – they were lucky to recover another of their fumbles. The Bulldogs punted and we took over at our 25. A procedure penalty and some poor execution resulted in a turnover on downs at the 27. Maybe we should’ve punted. On 4th down, the Bulldogs QB got flushed out of the pocket and threw up a prayer on the run. #20 made a great leaping catch in the end zone. Their kicker drilled the 2-pointer and we found ourselves trailing 8-6 at the half, despite the fact that we’d completely dominated.
We took the 2nd half kickoff and had a good drive going. Our FB broke free for about 25 yards on a Counter Wedge, but got caught from behind. On 2nd and 4 from the Bulldog 30, our QB got really sloppy with the ball on a weakside power play and fumbled it away. Our defense forced the Bulldogs to punt, but their punter was really good. We took over on our 32. We drove it to the Bulldog 24, but turned it over on downs after two consecutive questionable spots of the ball. We were into the 4th quarter by this time, and our defense continued to play fantastic, forcing another 3 and out. Our d-line and LB’s played with unbelievable intensity throughout the semifinal and championship game. After another good punt, we took over at our 46 with about 4:00 left in the game.
The whole season would come down to this drive. WB Counter for 6. TB Off Tackle for 3. On 3rd and 1, the QB who had fumbled earlier dove over the top of a pile to get the first down on a T Series Wedge. 1st and 10 at the Bulldog 43. We needed some yards quick. T-Series WB Pass. The QE got behind the defense and the protection was good. The WB threw up what looked like a good pass until the wind caught it, but the QE made a terrific adjustment to the ball and showed great hands hauling it in. The adjustment gave the defense time to catch him after a 26-yard gain. Power Off Tackle to the Bulldog 13. Our TB was running with determination through the mud. FB Counter for 1. We called timeout with 1:25 left. I huddled with the offense on the field. I told the boys that it was 3rd and 5 and we really needed a first down on this play. I asked them what they thought we should run. One kid said “Power 5” (TB Off Tackle) another suggested a pass. The Bulldogs were playing very aggressively so I was thinking about a counter play. I looked our TB in the eyes and I could tell he wanted the ball and he was ready. That settled it. “Buck 6” I said, “let’s execute and put it in the end zone.” I kept looking at our TB and told him “Take it to the pylon”. He nodded at me and said, “Yes sir”. As I walked back to the sideline, I felt good about our chances.
The Bulldogs DE bit on the QB buck, and then got sandwiched between our WB and pulling G. The buck froze the OLB, CB and S for a split second, but that was enough. The exchange was good and the FB made a perfect toss. The TB caught it in stride and sprinted for the corner, diving into the end zone just past the pylon.
We missed the kick, so we had a 12-8 lead. There was still 1:16 left in the game, but we covered the kickoff well, tackled #20 for a loss on a reverse and then pressured their QB into throwing an incompletion. On 3rd down the Bulldogs mishandled the snap and it rolled forward. One of our LB’s recovered. We took knees to end the game and our sideline just erupted with emotion. It had been a season of heartbreak and joy, but it ended perfectly. We celebrated the victory on the field and carried that over with the whole team and their families at a local sports bar/restaurant. They put the video of the game on their big screen and relived every moment of it over pizza, pop and beer. It was an awesome way to end the season and my days of coaching the Comets.
Of all the choices I made in 12 years of coaching youth football, the most rewarding has without-a-doubt been the decision to run the Single-Wing. It is a system that you can easily adapt to your talent. We’ve had tremendous success with it from day one and I’d strongly recommend that youth league and high school coaches study and implement the Single-Wing Offense.