While digging for T formation information (see my last article), I picked up two books discussing Army football. The first was Randy Roberts’ “A Team For America”, a good book that discusses Earl Blaik, his development of Army football, and ends with the 1945 season, in which Army went undefeated and beat Navy in the Army Navy game. But from the context of football history, at least as useful is Mark Beech’s book “When Saturday Mattered Most”.
This book focuses on the Black Knight’s 1958 season, the last in which Army went undefeated. So you have Earl Blaik introducing the Lonely End formation, and the effect the formation had on the game. The book touches on the problems Earl was having with depth, the majesty of Pete Dawkins’ Heisman winning season, and well, a whole lot more. The book is heavily driven by player and coach interviews, and I think, does the topic plenty of justice.
For the football historian, though, there are plenty of small comments that help establish the nature of football in the late 1950s. For example, the Black Knights had been playing the 5-4 Oklahoma, but Earl wasn’t very happy with it. (1)
Against opponents with superior size and depth, sticking with the Oklahoma seemed as self-defeating as continuing to run the offense from the T formation, since the key to the scheme was for defenders to hit and control the offensive blocker in front of him. The Oklahoma Defense, in other words, was “impact football”. Blaik instead wanted an aggressive defense that attacked the ball with speed rather than trying to control the line of scrimmage.
All I can say is that the issue of the Oklahoma being a big, powerful man’s defense is older than the mass switch to the Miami 4-3 in the 1990s.
The formation chosen for the 1958 campaign is also interesting. Earl Blaik has been experimenting with unbalanced lines, and along with the unbalanced line, they added a “far flanker”. This was a split end positioned fifteen to twenty yards away from the main formation. The backfield would be a Bears or Power T, or perhaps a brown formation, with Pete Dawkins, normally a halfback, stationed as a wingback on the strong side. Though perhaps not the original intent, this broke the “four spoke” contain strategies of the day, and led to a very powerful rushing attack.
We’re going illustrate this, so readers have a better understanding of what was going on. A 5-2, with players positioned as per assignments in Gomer and Wilkinson (up to and including the flexed nose guard), would look something like this.
With cornerbacks 3 yards deep and within 4-5 yards of the ends, you can easily see how the Oklahoma got the game the 5-4. As Beech explained, the 5-4 against a traditional Power T gives you effectively a nine man line. (2)
The formation Earl Blaik used became known as the Lonely End formation, a phrase coined by the journalist Stanley Woodward. The flanker had to be covered or else he would run wild. A typical adjustment of 1958 would look something like this.
The problem now is, the cornerback is too far away to help in run contain. Yes, he can cover the far end, but he really cannot function to contain end runs to his side. Further, if the end went deep, he would take two defenders, a cornerback and a safety, with him. The four spoke contain was broken. (3-4)
The answer emerged roughly concurrently with the appearance of the Lonely End formation, as Homer Smith notes in Mark Beech’s book: (5)
I was manning the phones on the sideline in a game when I was the freshman coach at Stanford in 1958, and somone we were playing, I forget who it was, was using the inverted rotation. We didn’t know what the heck was going on; at least the coaches didn’t, and I sure didn’t. It was that new, that surprising.
In the inverted rotation, also called an overshifted secondary, a safety would drop to linebacker depth and station himself 3-5 yards outside the line, and function as a contain man. This player at linebacker depth later became known as a monster or rover back, and is commonly seen in eight in the box defenses to this day, including the Desert Swarm defenses of current Army coach Rich Ellerson.
Innovations of formation and defense weren’t the only changes Mark noted. He points out that to deal with the complexities of the line assignments, that line coach Bill Gunlock installed an area, or zone blocking scheme. This dates area blocking to a time before Vince Lombardi becomes head coach of Green Bay. (6)
So all told, in summary, this is an important book for a couple of reasons. It tells a nice story of Earl Blaik’s last season, and further, it gives enough detail about the football of the times to get in on the problems of a football coach in the late 1950s, the kinds of solution required to solve the problems of the era, and then enough detail to help piece together the evolution of both football offense and defense.
I recommend this book a lot, a worthy read.
Fig 1. The DT shade over the tackles is probably a little exaggerated. Jones and Wilkinson describe it as almost across from the tackles, but I didn’t read “outside shoulder of the tackles”. In modern notation, it isn’t quite a 4, but not quite a 5 either. The DTs above are shown as a 5, so a bit exaggerated in terms of their placement.
1. Beech, Chapter 3.
2. Beech, Chapter 1.
3. Beech, Epilogue.
4. “Feet plus Pete Dawkins”
5. Beech, Epilogue.
6. Beech, Chapter 3.
Beech, Mark, When Saturday Mattered Most: The Last Golden Season of Army Football, St Martin’s Press, 2012.[ebook]
Jones, Gomer and Wilkinson, Bud, Modern Defensive Football. , Prentice-Hall, 1957.
Wilkinson, Bud, Sports illustrated football: defense, Lippincott, 1973 .
Wyatt, Hugh, Earl “Red” Blaik – Chapter 9 The Lonely End Excites a Nation, retrieved August 2, 2013.