Tony DeMeo


How to Pull Off the Big Upset

One of the greatest thrills in sports is the UPSET. When the David in shoulder pads knocks off the Goliath. As a coach, nothing made my juices flow more than when my team faced the “unbeatable opponent” I was always drawn to the challenge without fearing the menace.

That being said, I always knew that we had to carefully plan the ambush that we couldn’t take on the Tyrannosaurus Rex toe to toe. It was time to put our ego on a shelf and conduct guerilla warfare.

The biggest mistake underdogs make is they try to “out Goliath Goliath” – it doesn’t work. I saw the Tulsa – Memphis game. Memphis was a big favorite but Tulsa tried to run a face paced up tempo offense just like Memphis BUT Memphis was better so they eventually routed Tulsa. Tulsa’s only chance was to slow the game and limit the number of possessions in the game & match scores with Memphis. Tulsa tried to beat a superior team at their own game, they couldn’t.

So how do you pull off the big upset? Let’s look at some tactics that will give you the best shot at knocking off the Big Dog on your block.

1. Know your opponent. What’s their strength? What’s their weakness? Respect them but never fear them.

2. Have a Plan to Shorten the Game. Limit the number of possessions in the game. Don’t get in a scoring race with a more talented opponent use the clock as an ally.

3. Milk the clock on Offense. Take the maximum amount of time between plays. You can even go “No Huddle” and still wait to snap the ball. Think in terms of First Downs. Set up ‘Knock Out Shots” with base plays. For Example: set up Hitch & Go by throwing the Hitch.

4. Get the Clock moving & keep it moving. Start each possession with a run or a very high percentage pass. The clock is stopped until the ball is snapped so don’t want it stopped with an incomplete pass. The same is true in 3rd and long. If you keep the clock moving preceding a punt you can run off more time.

5. On Defense – Don’t load the box until you must. Play “scorched earth” make them go the long way – no big plays. Bend but don’t break. Every time they run the ball for 3 yards or less – it’s a win because they are killing the clock for you. Now when they get down deep in your territory then you can load the box.

6. Ball Security is a must. On offense, be patient and take what they give you. Confuse them with formations, show them many looks but run high percentage plays. Protection is a must beware of Blitz – add to protection rather than throw hot. On defense try to get takeaways with the second man in on the tackle.

7. Special Teams must be executed and be an asset not a liability. Keep the ball away from a great returner. This isn’t a macho thing. Nothing wrong with a pooch or squib kick off. Punt protection is critical. Steal possessions with a Fake Punt, Fake Field Goal or an Onside Kick Off. Design a great punt block, you’re more likely to block a punt then return one for a TD. Remember to let the clock run prior to a punt.

8. Win the Red Zone. Getting Touchdowns in the Red Zone is critical to the upset. So is holding your opponent to Field Goals. Remember: POINTS MATTER, Yards don’t. Be smart about whether to settle for a Field Goal or go for the TD. If the Field Goal doesn’t add to another possession then go for the TD. For example if the FG increases your lead to 10 – kick it. But if you’ll only go up 6 – go for if it is normal down & distance.

9. Cadence is a little used weapon but can steal you First Downs and give your offense “Free Play” opportunities. This must be practiced and simple for your guys. Having “Freeze Plays” produces great dividends with little investment.

10. Think Players. The Game Plan must have ample plays to get your playmakers the ball in space. Isolate your playmaker one on one. Make cover guys tackle & tackle guys cover. Speed in Space gives you an edge.

11. The Second Half Surprise. Always save a “little some some” for the second half. It may be an unusual formation or shift on offense and on defense it may be an unusual front or a “Freak Defense” to spice things up.

12. The Fourth Quarter must be yours. The Fourth Quarter is when the upset will be decided. If the game is close in the fourth, let it rip. This is the time to turn it loose. Be bold but not reckless. You can even sprinkle in some High Tempo to keep the “D” off balance. Play to Win.

These are some of the tactics that we’ve used over the years to knock off the Goliaths that we’ve faced. In a future article I’ll talk about getting your team mentally ready to knock off the “Big Dog” and as Ric Flair always said “to be the man you must beat the man.”