Nate Williams is a former Northwestern linebacker. He will be providing his perspective on NU games this season.
Given all the recent controversy that has come up in the wake of the NU vs Cal game regarding Northwestern defensive players “faking injuries,” I thought I would throw my two cents in. As you may have known, I played middle linebacker for three years under the current defensive staff and five years in total for Coach Fitz. I was in every defensive meeting room and knew every game plan through and through. A lot of writers, bloggers, and fans have been very critical of NUs defense late in the game, as well as Fitz's postgame quotes and possible “tactics." I can say this with almost 100% validity, NU did not coach or tell anyone to fake injuries and certainly did not practice it like Kirk Herbstreit claims many teams do.
To start lets take a look at Fitz’s post game quotes:
Fitzgerald told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Our guys get dinged up. They get dinged up, they’re instructed to go down.” he at a later point said “They’re instructed to go down not hobble of to the sideline.”
What Fitz explained has gone on at NU. Guess what… Its not against the rules, and it shouldn’t be frowned upon. This mentality has not only been preached by the coaching and training staff, but by players as well. It is also worth to note, that this “tactic” is something that is not only advised for no huddle and uptempo offenses, but also for your traditional pro-style offense. The idea of it is pretty simple: if you get “dinged up” or hurt on a play, you get the attention of the referee by looking for medical assistance regardless the severity of the injury or “ding." To do so, you either take a knee, or remain on the ground to allow the referee to acknowledge the situation so you can seek the proper attention. This allows the coaching staff to notice that they need to find the proper replacement.
This is something that obviously gets noticed a lot more in no huddle, uptempo situations, simply because the defense has time to catch their breath. I have been in situations where some guys have ran off the field with maybe an upper extremity injury and no one goes into replace them, leaving the defense with 10 guys. This happens more so with uptempo offenses, but also occurs with traditional offenses as well.
I have been equally as tired from a long drive of a pro style offense as an offense similar to Cal, and we were always regarded as one of the best conditioned teams in the nation. It is also an “unwritten rule” amongst players when playing against uptempo offenses to “stay down." If I had a nickel every time I’ve heard “man just stay down” from teammates regarding guys (or myself) trying to tough it out on their way to the sidelines, I’d have a lot of nickels. There are a lot of egos in football, and the macho man inside many of us want to do the “tough guy” thing and walk off on our own power, but there are smarter ways of doing it. In this era of player safety it is just smart football, and Northwestern has always epitomized smart football.
Defending the Uptempo Offense:
A man I have a lot of respect for and have had the pleasure with speaking at length, whether before games for interviews or other private conversations, is ESPN analyst Chris Spielman. He recently was quoted in an article posted days before the Cal game about how faking injuries will be see more these days and coaches will and have started practicing faking. Spielman said he "wouldn't go down for anybody" if asked to fake an injury.
If Spielman ran a defense, he would counter offensive tempo with more defensive audibles based on scouting reports. I certainly agree. Northwestern has this done many times in the past, most notably with Missouri during the Alamo Bowl, as Coach Hankwitz put together one of the best defensive game plans I can remember being a part of. We had 30+ days to gameplan for Missouri and full season worth of tape. The only tape that was available for Cal was a spring game. Huge difference.
“Hurt Vs Injured”
There is a pretty universal feeling amongst football coaches, and players alike about the difference between being “Hurt” and “Injured”. What you saw from DJ Jones and Kain Colter: Injured (none of which were called to question and understandably so). What you saw from Venric Mark, Will Hampton, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby: Hurt (all of which were called into question, Proby in particular). I bring up Mark only to prove a point: you can still play while hurt. Guys do it all the time and I did on numerous occasions. Getting hurt can be anything from rolling an ankle to a cut that needs bandaged (which officials actually force you off to the sideline). So to call out the others for coming back into the game based merely on the situational state of the game is a cop out. There has never been any coach I have played for who looked down on a player coming off, rubbing some dirt on it and getting back out there.
I think that Hampton and Ariguzo both had legitimate “dings” and took advantage of the ability to be able get off the field safely and allow their subs to come in. It just so happens that also allows the rest of the defense gets a short breather. Proby, on the other hand, may have slightly embellished the situation, not the injury. I don't doubt that he was hurt. I think he was being a heady player, and realized that he was hurt and on the complete other side of the field and unable to make it all the way back 53.33 yards in 5-10 seconds. To think that someone who is even slightly hurt and went as many plays as he did would be able to sprint or even jog back to the other side of the field in 5-10 seconds is completely irrational, and anyone who thinks that likely never played a down of football. Either way you cut it, there was not a single “flop” or “fake” of an injury, simply a team taking advantage of the rules in place when player gets dinged up (starters and star players, nonetheless).
Now I will never try to defend a tactic that is outwardly going out of its way to embellish, flop, or outright fake injuries, just as Cal did so against Oregon in 2010 — and this is not trying to reflect back negatively onto the current Cal team, I know it was a different staff. I have always been raised and coached with the southwest Pennsylvania, blue collar ideals of “rub some dirt and get back in the game." This is different. In high school, there are not many, if any, officiating crews capable of letting offenses run this kind of tempo. This is college football, where speed and efficiency is the goal of every team and officiating crew. Unfortunately, it puts the defense at a huge disadvantage for substitutions and can put players in harms way. While I don’t think any player came out based purely on them running out of gas, it surely had something to do with it. Getting “gassed” during a drive often makes players lose their fundamental techniques and lose mental focus, putting them out of position during play. Getting put in poor position both technically and within the framework of the defensive game plan can lead to injuries. I believe this is what happened with the Cats this game.
If the inner workings of college football is going to have these differentiations between being hurt and injured, the rules need to reflect that. I have no issue with it doing so. Situations such as this has happened against the Northwestern offense in the past, so there is no reason it would negatively affect us. A solution I would suggest is if a player is to go down with an “injury," which I still feel is an arbitrary term, they must stay out for more than just one play. A team would have to either use a timeout to allow the player to returnc(similar to the new and bogus helmet rule), or would have to wait until the next first down is achieved. Anything further or longer than the next first down is far too long.
To note, Page FR-11 of the NCAA Rulebook reads:
“Feigning an injury for any reason is unethical. An injured player must be given full protection under the rules, but feigning injury is dishonest, unsportsmanlike and contrary to the spirit of the rules. Such tactics cannot be tolerated among sportsmen of integrity.”
For the record: “Feigning” is defined as “pretend to be affected by (a feeling, state, or injury)”
Welcome to 2013, Cats — and Cal — fans. The Cats national attention both good and bad because, well… we are now nationally relevant. We got put into the national spotlight for a very tough game that many thought would be a “trap game” and came out on top. We didn’t break any rules and didn’t do anything that should be frowned upon, unless its by the losing team whining about it. If you feel any differently, I don’t know what to tell you: "Yeah well, you know, thats just like your opinion man” - The Dude.