- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- The film room is a place that coaches and players love to talk about, but one that has an air of mystery about it.
We know that college coaches practically live in there, and so do some players. We know the players who spend the most time there are often regarded as the most devoted to their craft and to their team. We know it's a place where harsh critiques occur, where four-letter words bounce off the walls and players are singled out for smart plays and thrown under the bus for mistakes.
Above all, it's a place that belongs to the coaches and players. It's their sanctum, off limits for us. But I've often wondered what really happens in this place we hear so much about.
What do players look for when scouting other teams and themselves? What tendencies do they pick up? How does film study help them transition to game day?
During the past two weeks, I got a feel for the film room.
Northwestern players Tyrell Sutton and Brendan Smith allowed me to join them as they prepared for the Oct. 11 game against Michigan State and reviewed what went wrong in a 37-20 loss.
Our first session took place before the game, as Sutton, a senior running back, and Smith, a junior safety, scouted Michigan State's offense and defense. In the second session, Smith "self-scouted" himself and the other Northwestern defenders, charting their mistakes against the Spartans and how they could improve the next time they take the field.
Monday, Oct. 6
I meet Sutton and Smith at the Nicolet Football Center after Northwestern's weekly news conference, and we head into the offensive line meeting room. Sutton sits at a computer and punches up film from Michigan State's previous game, a 16-13 win against Iowa.
Scouting Michigan State's defense
Aiming a red laser pointer at the projection screen, Sutton immediately finds No. 43, Michigan State sophomore linebacker Eric Gordon.
"They obviously have him spying the running back," Sutton said. "So wherever the running back goes, he goes."
Sutton usually spends most of his time scouting an opposing team's linebackers, though he also pays attention to the safeties and the down linemen, trying to spot any tendencies.
As a senior who has faced Michigan State three times, he's familiar with some of the personnel.
"I already know about Otis," Sutton says, referring to senior safety Otis Wiley. "He's the hitter of the group. Nothing functions without him. He's a little rogue at times, but for the most part he gets his job done. He's not afraid to make mistakes. That's the big thing about him. Greg Jones is the most athletic [linebacker]."
Iowa runs a play-action pass from quarterback Ricky Stanzi to wideout Andy Brodell that goes for 21 yards. Sutton notices Wiley is playing way outside the hashmarks, which indicates he's not in pass coverage.
Jones is showing blitz.
Sutton continues to watch Gordon.
"He bought the fake, and now he's taken out of the play," Sutton says. "I look at the way he chases the ball. He's not a fast guy, but he plays through the whistle. That's something you've got to be aware of."
Sutton also looks for team-wide tendencies when he reviews film.
"Last week, we played against Iowa, and their linebackers read the pulling guards, they read the linemen," he said. "These guys center on the running back, so wherever the running back goes, that's where these guys go. They don't green dog a lot. They blitz a lot.
"They're a fast-flow team. As soon as they see run, they're going downhill."
Green dog is when linebackers blitz after recognizing a running back is in pass protection.
"We look at D-linemen, too," Sutton said, "and so far, what I've seen from each of them is they just bull-rush. They don't try and spin. It's just to see if you can contain on the bull rush."
Since Iowa runs a traditional offense, and Northwestern runs the spread, it makes more sense to see how Michigan State fared against a spread team. So Sutton punches up Michigan State's game on Sept. 27 against Indiana, which uses a shotgun spread similar to Northwestern.
The first play is an "obvious blitz," Sutton said.
He points out that though it appears Michigan State has only three down linemen, a fourth linebacker has moved into the middle, essentially serving as another defensive tackle. Wiley also comes on the blitz, with Jones moving back into coverage.
A Spartans linebacker tries to occupy Indiana's center and left guard, while defensive tackle Justin Kershaw curls around to attempt a sack. Indiana running back Marcus Thigpen, who plays the same role Sutton will have against the Spartans, takes a step to his right before recognizing Kershaw and moving to his left to make the block.
"He saw the twist head coming," Sutton said. "That's a really good pickup."
The blitz fails and a receiver is open in the middle of the field, but quarterback Kellen Lewis throws into triple coverage and the pass falls incomplete. Still, Sutton can learn from Thigpen's example.
The top of the screen reads: 41 under, 4 press. It tells the viewer the type of defense Michigan State is running on each play. In this case, the Spartans have four down linemen, one linebacker in the box, two defensive backs playing man ("press") coverage and two defensive backs in Cover 4.
Michigan State has more trouble defending the spread on Indiana's second possession, a nine-play, 76-yard touchdown drive. Gordon and one of the cornerbacks take bad angles on a run to Ray Fisher, who races for 22 yards. Indiana then completes passes of 13 and 11 yards, and Lewis finds Fisher for an 8-yard score.
"I don't know if it's because of broken coverages or lack of communication, but it's something they've been exploited to," Sutton said. "You've got three guys covering one person."
Several plays later, Gordon redeems himself, racing across the field to make a tackle.
"There ya go," Sutton said. "That just goes to show, you never know what a player's desire is. This is why it's better to look at the TV copy. You can see people's demeanors. You can see if they're tired. Body language tells a lot, and you don't get it on these kind of film breakdowns."
Sutton talks about the importance of manipulating defenders, which he learned from watching game film with his Northwestern predecessor, Noah Herron. For example, on a zone run to the left, the back can purposely stretch the play toward the sideline before cutting back.
Then, the next time the play is called, the defender likely will anticipate the cutback, allowing the ball carrier to continue his path toward the sideline.
"[Herron] told me, 'It's not who's the fastest on the field. It's about who sees the field the best,'" Sutton said. "If you can see everything on the field, that beats the hell out of being the fastest because you know where everything's at, you know where everything's going to happen. You can manipulate everybody, everything, on the field."
Smith adds that defenders can avoid being manipulated by sacrificing themselves on certain plays.
"The hardest thing to do is to give yourself up for the betterment of the team," he said. "So someone's coming to block you, like an offensive lineman. Your first instinct is to just 'ole' him, try to run around him and make the play. Well, that's how the ball gets out. If you just take him on like you're supposed to, it's going to force [the running back] to the unblocked man."
Scouting Michigan State's offense
We go back to the Michigan State-Iowa game as Smith scouts the Spartans' offense.
He starts by looking at the alignment. Are the wide receivers on the hashmarks or the numbers? How far behind the line does running back Javon Ringer position himself for run plays? Does it change for pass plays?
Smith also watches quarterback Brian Hoyer.
"I try to see how often he looks around, whether it's a run-pass," Smith said. "Does he look more on passing plays or less on run plays? Just trying to figure out any tendencies, splits, the littlest thing, anything that can happen that can be an advantage.
"Some quarterbacks, the last way that they look before they get the ball snapped is where they're going."
Smith notices that when Ringer lines up eight yards behind the line, it's usually a run play. Seven yards equals a pass.
The pre-snap reads are vital for safeties, Smith says, as he watches a pass attempt from Hoyer to B.J. Cunningham.
"The [wide receiver] comes in for a route. Does he give a little head fake? Does he stick it? Does he give me a move to the post?" Smith said. "The Iowa safety is awful; he's got to widen, they're in Cover 2. Because of this route right here, this slant up into that corner, see how they run that route. Some people give away tendencies."
As a fourth-year junior, Smith also has faced the Spartans before and knows their habits.
"You've got to watch out after the whistle, standing around the pile," he said. "Their line, they love to hit you after the whistle. It's not smart to stand around that pile."
He once again counts off Ringer's alignment. He's eight yards back.
"Run play," Smith said.
I ask Sutton if there's a pattern to his alignment.
"I try to mix it up," he said. "If I know it's a pass play, I'll line up in a run alignment."
Michigan State gains 52 yards on a pass from Hoyer to Cunningham. Smith praises Hoyer for recognizing that a linebacker, A.J. Edds, is matched up against the speedy Cunningham, who scoots down the sideline.
Two plays later, Michigan State scores on third-and-goal as Hoyer goes play-action and finds tight end Charlie Gantt for a 4-yard touchdown. Cornerback Amari Spievey bites on the fake to Ringer and can't get over in time to cover Gantt.
"My eyes would be on this tight end, on him," Smith said. "I'm not worried about the back because if it actually gets to me, there were some problems somewhere else. If [the tight end] starts blocking, I'm going to look at the back to make sure it's run, and then I'll go make a play. What the 10 other guys are supposed to do, their job is to make the tackle. Your job right now is to cover this guy, who then goes and scores."
In addition to spending time in the film room, Smith and Sutton try to watch the TV broadcasts of their opponents' games, which provide better close-up camera angles of the plays and players.
"It plays a big role in terms of knowing who the guys are," Smith said. "It's another perspective. You should always want to learn and pick up something new."
Tuesday, Oct. 14 -- Game Review
I meet Smith outside Nicolet, and we head into the linebackers meeting room to review film from the Michigan State game. The Spartans jumped ahead 17-0, capitalizing on field position and several Northwestern mistakes to notch the 37-20 victory.
"I had a terrible game," Smith laments as he sits down at the computer and punches up the game film. "I'll self scout this time, watch what I'm doing, what I need to improve and what the [opposing team] is looking at in us. Where are we weak?"
It turns out several of the tendencies Smith picked up during our pregame film session didn't pan out. In watching several other Michigan State games, Smith saw that Ringer's alignment varied between pass and run plays. Seven yards didn't necessarily equal run.
Hoyer also did a good job of not tipping his hand before the snap.
"If you look at his head this time, it's a pass and he's not moving at all," Smith said. "Other games, he'd just be like scanning for his reads."
We watch a second-and-1 play from Northwestern's 33-yard line, where Ringer picks up the first down on a 4-yard gain.
"Right here," Smith said, "I mess up."
Northwestern had installed a new package called "Sparty" for the Michigan State game. It called for the strongside linebacker and the cornerback to defend the outside receiver, while Smith would mark fullback Jeff McPherson. The other safety, Brad Phillips, was assigned to Gantt, the tight end.
If Michigan State called a run, Smith was responsible for keeping Ringer to the inside, allowing a teammate to make the play. But he didn't think Ringer would bounce outside and didn't see the wide receiver move over to clear him out.
"That's when you have to give up your body for the good of the team, and this is a play where I didn't," Smith said. "I should have just stood in there and took him on with my shoulder, but I didn't really even see him. If I just step up right away and come up right here, it closes the gap and the space, so then it forces the ball to come up right to Brad.
"He only needed a yard, but for a defense to be a great defense and for us to be a great team, I need to do those things. Everyone needs to do those little things."
Michigan State hits a 20-yard out pass to Cunningham to get inside the Northwestern 10-yard line.
"We weren't challenging any guys," Smith fumes.
Northwestern lines up in its standard goal-line set with only one cornerback and an extra linebacker. Michigan State, a traditional power offense, lines up in the shotgun with an empty backfield before switching into the I-formation.
The alignment initially throws off Northwestern, but the defense adjusts and stops Ringer for a minimal gain.
Northwestern forced Michigan State into third down, but in what became a troubling trend, the Spartans converted for a 3-yard touchdown pass from Hoyer to Garrett Celek. Smith originally was assigned to Celek on the play, but he switched to Gantt when Gantt went in motion. Phillips was late getting over and Celek got open in the end zone.
"The coaches feel bad that they didn't show us this [play]," Smith said. "This is one we weren't [prepared for]."
Michigan State converted 7 of 15 third-down opportunities in the game.
Smith says the Spartans were a little better this year about post-whistle combat, but there were a few incidents.
"They tried to blast me," said Wildcats linebacker Prince Kwateng, who had entered the room to get his bag.
We watch a second-and-9 play where Ringer carries for 4 yards. Not a bad result, but Smith says Northwestern should have disguised its blitz better.
The Wildcats finally make a third-down stop, but Michigan State goes for it on fourth-and-1. Once again, the Spartans come out in a shotgun with an empty backfield before switching into the I. This time, Ringer picks up the first down.
"That was the second time," Smith said. "It's just to get us out of our norm, out of our realm. Get us thinking, get us misaligned, get us in the wrong matchups."
Northwestern forces another third down, and defensive end Corey Wootton levels Hoyer. The film shows that Hoyer fumbled the ball, but because the ball bounced forward off Wootton and an offensive lineman, the play was ruled an incomplete pass and whistled dead.
Smith said Northwestern sent the play into the Big Ten office for review.
"Not even close," Smith said. "That's a big miss right there."
Michigan State settles for three points but regains possession in Northwestern territory following an interception.
On second-and-8, the Spartans run a sweep to Ringer, who picks up a first down. Smith notes that cornerback Jordan Mabin recognizes the play but moves too far upfield rather than letting Wootton seal off that area. Mabin tries to recover but takes too sharp an angle trying to tackle Ringer.
"That's just playing experience," Smith said of the redshirt freshman. "He's going to be a great player."
The final play we review is Ringer's 13-yard touchdown run around the left side.
Smith appears to get held by Gantt as he tries to stop Ringer from bouncing to the outside. But there's no flag and Ringer scoots into the end zone, putting Michigan State up 16-0.
"What they should see is that I'm trying to go to the outside, and I can't go," Smith said. "But I let the ball outside.
"No excuses, man. They put points up."
Adam Rittenberg covers the Big Ten for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.