The Penn football team plays its games on Saturdays. By Sunday mornings, players and coaches have already begun to prepare for their game the following week.
A huge part of that preparation, and a part opaque to many a casual fan, is film study. Both with coaches and individually, players watch recorded games featuring their opponent to glean whatever they can heading into the weekend’s matchup. They look for tells, tendencies, weaknesses, strengths — essentially anything that will offer even the slightest advantage on game day.
This week, I sat down with senior Danny Ritt. A former safety from Germantown, Tenn., Ritt now plays strong-side outside linebacker for the Quakers.
After meeting in front of Franklin Field, Danny and I walked up to the Penn football headquarters in Weightman Hall. Just outside the coaches’ offices are multiple televisions for players to use for film.
Ritt picks up a disc, pops it into the DVD player and grabs the remote. The picture flickers into focus. It’s a game tape of the Columbia Lions, the Quakers’ next opponent. The Lions, like Penn, have one win and three losses on the season. But unlike Penn, they lost their only Ivy League contest to date to Princeton on Sept. 29.
As a defensive player, Ritt watches the portion of the tape that exclusively shows the Columbia offense. Every play is shown from two different views. The first view is from behind the quarterback, showing mainly the ‘box,’ or the linemen and linebackers. The second view is more similar to the one you see on TV: a sideline view showing all the players on the field. Because Ritt lines up in different places on the field depending on the situation, he watches both versions of the play carefully.
“You understand what the offense wants to do,” Ritt explains. “It kind of gives you their bread and butter.”
For William & Mary, Ritt says, backs like to run between the tackles. “With film, it all depends on how much time you give to it, but it just tells you who or what you’re going against and what to expect.”
Beyond mandatory film sessions with coaches on Sunday and daily before practice, players — depending on their preferences and who they are — watch varying amounts of game tape.
While Ritt told me he’ll generally watch four to five game tapes of the opposing team, he says that some players, like senior cornerback Dave Twamley, will watch twice that amount. Other players won’t watch any more than required, preferring to let their instincts dictate their play rather than possibly letting knowledge get in the way.
Watching film for the football players is all about trying to pick out information that will be useful to them. Certain sets and alignments could tip off a run or a pass but the players like to watch for those they’ll be matched up against because information about an individual can be very valuable.
For example, Maybe No. 20 prefers to cut back rather than get north and south with the ball, or maybe No. 82 only comes in for running plays. If you’ve seen it on film, you’ll step into the situation more prepared than simply reacting to what the other team chooses to show you on game day.
“It’s like a test,” Ritt says. “You just try and see as much as they’ve done and then try and pick out the parts because you don’t know what they’re going to give you. And they always have something new.”
Ritt compared the off-the-field preparation to an additional class, which players add to their academic courseload and regular practice.
In addition to the televisions in the football office, players have the option to view film on the internet via a software program called Hudl, which also allows coaches to mark up replays a la the John Madden telestrator.
Film can also bring a lighter side to the arduous preparation process.
“You never want to make the ‘Don’t Do This’ Tape,” Ritt explains. When he sees friends who have graduated who remain on that particular reel, Ritt still texts them to remind them that while they may have graduated from Penn, they haven’t graduated off of the “Don’t Do This” tape.
In football, as in chess, every move has a counter move, and some teams have exploited the fact that their opponents study them on film.
“A lot of [teams] have gone back and done self-scouting and if they’re good enough at it, they’ll say, ‘Every time we have No. 7 in the slot we’re doing this or every time we’re inverted were doing this,’” Ritt says. “And then the next game they’ll show you that and do something completely different.”
Information is such a precious commodity in college football that Ritt has heard stories of teams attempting to surreptitiously film Penn’s games from remote areas of Franklin Field or staff going through trash cans to try to find discarded playbooks.
It was Sun Tzu, the legendary Chinese general, who said, “All war is deception.” In a game in which cards are shown only at the last possible second, being able to predict and react a split-second faster can be the difference between winning and losing, especially over the course of an entire game.
“We always want to have the last say,” Ritt says. “We call it, ‘check the checker.’”
Move, counter-move. Check the checker. When the Quakers and Lions meet on Saturday at Franklin Field, you can bet the two teams will have scrutinized hours of film in hopes that they can have the last say in how the game is decided.