SALT LAKE CITY – The elevator doors open, and the Utah coaches walk out. Game time is near. Got to go to work.
Most of the Utes' coaches will work this night's game against TCU on the sideline. But this group of assistants walking down the hallway will be positioned in a coaching box on the sixth floor of Rice-Eccles Stadium. One of them is offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
Ludwig can see it all from here. He's like a medical student watching a surgery – only in this case, Ludwig is the doctor offering direction from his perch high above the action. He speaks to no one as he enters the booth; it's all about focus.
Some are calling this the biggest regular-season game in Utah history. The Utes are 9-0 and ranked No. 8 in the BCS. Win out, and Utah will claim its second BCS bowl berth in five years. Tonight's obstacle: 7-1 TCU, ranked No. 11 in the BCS. Ludwig knows he'll be challenged. He had only four days to scheme and plan for this Thursday night game against a Horned Frogs defense that ranks No. 2 in the nation overall and No. 1 against the run.
Ludwig settles into his seat in the middle of the first row. He slips on his head set, takes a sip from a tiny Dasani water bottle and adjusts a small desk light that shines on the table in front of him. This is a new addition.
"I appreciate this," Ludwig says to no one in particular. "This is nice."
The rest of the booth is dimly lighted, creating a settling – almost cooling – feel to what will become a sometimes emotion-charged booth during the course of the game. It's a sterile, solitary setting, and Rivals.com sat in the coaching booth with Ludwig and the Utah coaches. Here is what it was like.
* * *
Ludwig is professorial in his look and approach. A tall, thin, self-professed private person, the bespectacled coach doesn't need many tools to do his job. This stuff is hard-wired in his brain from years of coordinating offense at places such as Fresno State and Oregon, where he groomed quarterbacks David Carr and Kellen Clemens.
In front of Ludwig, 44, are several sheets of paper and some colored pens. Ludwig reaches into his book bag and pulls out a binder that includes a script of around 20 plays he would like to run early in the game. He isn't a slave to the script and won't force himself to call each one in order – or even call all of them. The script is merely a guide, reminding him of what he wants to try to get accomplished early in the game.
Seated to Ludwig's left is offensive graduate assistant Zac Connors. To Ludwig's right is defensive graduate assistant Ilaisa Tuiaki. Also sitting along the front row are defensive administrative assistant Steve Mathis. Cornerbacks coach Aaron Alford stands. He needs room to prowl. In the back row is de facto assistant John Pease, a former long-time NFL assistant who serves as a sounding board and consultant during the game.
Among other things, Pease tosses out ideas and reminds the coaches of game situations like down-and-distance, timeouts remaining. But as valuable as any of that is Pease's calming, veteran influence. Stay calm, he says, stay focused.
As the coaches settle in, Pease shares things he has noticed about TCU during warm-ups, offering one last scouting assessment of the Horned Frogs.
"They were working everything on a quick count in warm-ups," Pease says. "No. 13 never threw a pass or played quarterback. No. 85 did nothing. He must be out. This looks like the same team as last year. I think they'll run the same stuff."
The coaches stand for the national anthem. It's game-time.
"KOR (kickoff return) is out," Tuiaki says. "Offense is up."
"Here we go," Ludwig says. "Have a great game."
Before Utah quarterback Brian Johnson trots on the field for the first series, Ludwig already is at work.
"OK, wristband 2. Gold, gold, gold," Ludwig says into his headset.
"Wristband 2" refers to what wristband the coaches should work off of. And "gold" is the personnel grouping. Ludwig studies his script and calls the play.
"Gun 4 Huck, Jet 6 Viper," Ludwig says.
It's a run by running back Eddie Wide for 6 yards. The chess match between Utah's dynamic offense and TCU's standout defense has begun.
* * *
Ludwig quickly studies his play sheet after each call, thinking out loud and often shouting instructions. He wants to be sure he is understood through the headset.
"Gator, gator, gator!" Ludwig says, signaling a personnel grouping. "Gun 6 waggle, right bubble. Let's go, let's go, let's go!"
Play-calling is only one function Ludwig performs. He also plays the role of counselor to Johnson. After each possession, Ludwig talks with his quarterback. On this night, with the offense struggling in the first half, Ludwig stays positive during each chat.
"You're looking good out there, Brian," Ludwig says. "That was a nice drive. Keep hammering and chipping away. Keep that laser focus. We'll be OK. You are throwing the ball well, Brian. Let's go."
While Ludwig discusses with Johnson what plays he may call on Utah's next possession, the Utes' defensive coaches are doing their best to sit on TCU's offense.
"We are missing tackles," Alford says. "Come on! Be smart out there. What's he doing? He has to hit that guy and take him out!"
Before kickoff, Alford taped a flip card to one wall of the booth. Above that he hung a piece of paper that details "TCU personnel signals." The Utes' coaches have identified what hand signals TCU uses – four fingers up, an OK sign, a peace sign, a fist, one finger aloft, a "hang loose" sign – to communicate what personnel it is sending into the game. Peering through binoculars, the defensive coaches scan the TCU sideline for the signals and shout them out.
"Hang loose! Hang loose!" Tuiaki shouts while peering through binoculars.
Alford shouts the information into his headset, communicating the information to the Utah sideline.
After poring over film in advance of the game, Utah coaches have decided what personnel they want on the field depending on what personnel TCU opts to use. It's all about matching up – or, more important, not getting caught in a mismatch.
With the defensive coaches at work, Ludwig chirps into his headset. After talking to Johnson, Ludwig shares his thoughts and ideas with the offensive assistants on the sideline. He also talks to coach Kyle Whittingham.
Ludwig reviewed Utah's game plan with players and coaches the night before during team meetings. Ludwig devised a plan to hit the fast-but-undersized TCU defense with power runs off the zone-read option. He also planned to attack the perimeter with some option and fly sweeps.
Ludwig schemed to change the pace by using the Utes' version of the ever-popular "wildcat formation." Utah calls its direct snap to a running back the "Asiata formation," named for Matt Asiata, who runs it. Yet another option to change the pace and generate a ground game is inserting backup quarterback Corbin Louks, a speed demon.
But Ludwig isn't too deep into his script before realizing none of his running plays are going to have much success against TCU, which is allowing only 39 yards rushing per game.
After yielding 10 points on TCU's first two drives, Utah's defense stiffens. But Ludwig's offense isn't clicking, generating only two field goals by Louie Sakoda. The halftime score: TCU 10, Utah 6. The unbeaten season and BCS dreams are 30 minutes from ending.
The coaches grab their jackets, notebooks and bags and bolt from the booth toward the elevators in order to meet with the rest of the team in the locker room. Ludwig is going to have to come up with a new plan.
* * *
After the coaches return to the booth following halftime, there's a problem: The headsets aren't functioning.
"What's up?" Ludwig asks, swiveling in his seat and looking at a technical support guy in the back of the booth. "You got it?"
The issue quickly is resolved. But Ludwig isn't having as much luck solving the TCU defense, which held the Utes to 34 rushing yards and 119 yards overall in the first half. Ludwig sits in silence, studying his play sheet.
"The second half is our half, boys," Alford says.
But Utah's offense continues to founder. Ludwig keeps whispering positive things in Johnson's ear after the Utes' first second-half drive yields no points. Ludwig has to keep Johnson positive and upbeat. He can't lose him.
"Way to get us out of a hole," Ludwig says. "You are fine. You are in good shape. How about on the next drive we try … "
Utah's defense continues to force stops, but Ludwig's offense continues to fire blanks.
"Got to go, got to go," Ludwig says. "OK, let's run Tornado 7-9 Option.
"Gun 5, Tex 56 Florida. Call it and go!
"Gun 6, Gap 5 Cobra!
"Gun 6 Freeze, Scan 4 Storm."
Little is working. Utah has to punt again. The third quarter melts away, and more than half the fourth quarter has vanished. The coaching box grows quiet. It's still 10-6, TCU.
"We have to three-and-out this, fellows," Alford says after another failed Utah drive.
Utah's defense continues to turn away TCU, with a few assists from the Horned Frogs along the way. TCU misses a second field goal in a row. But the clock and Utah's hopes are draining. Just 2:48 remains, and the Utes have the ball on their 20. This likely will be their final chance.
"Come on, let's finish this thing and go home and have a pizza and a beer," Pease says from the back row. "What do you say?"
No one answers. Ludwig starts calling plays and Johnson starts hitting passes – for 5 yards, 7 yards, 22 yards.
"Oh, come on!" Alford screams. "Where is the P.I. (pass interference)?"
The official throws his flag.
"Thank you! Finally!" Alford says.
With the ball at TCU's 31, Johnson and Utah move in for the kill. The insulated booth isn't able to mute the roaring crowd that senses a touchdown.
Ludwig stares down at his play sheet and calls the next play.
Johnson hits a 5-yard completion, then throws incomplete to set up a fourth-and 5 from TCU's 26. With the game and season on the line, Johnson strikes with an 11-yard completion. A 6-yard pass follows.
Less than 60 seconds remain and the ball is on TCU's 9. Ludwig calls for a quick slant, and Johnson fires a rope to Freddie Brown. Touchdown. The coaches erupt, and fists pound the counter.
"Yes!" Alford yells.
In an adjacent booth, the voices of the KALL 700 radio play-by-play team leak through into the coaches' box. "I don't believe what I just saw," a voice says.
Ludwig doesn't move. Forty-eight seconds remain. The game isn't over. Ludwig is thinking of what's next. He adjusts his mouthpiece and talks to an assistant below.
"You set up 'Victory' and I will get ready for overtime," he says.
Ludwig scraps his overtime plans after Utah picks off a TCU pass with seconds remaining. Utah gets in the "Victory" formation, a kneel-down set used to kill the clock. Game over.
"Let's get out of here," Alford says.
Ludwig breaks into a smile. It's over. Handshakes and hugs abound. Ludwig's decision to largely abandon the run and go with the passing attack in the second half worked. In the first half, Utah ran 34 plays – 18 runs and 16 passes. In the second half, the Utes had 32 plays – 25 passes and only seven runs. The net result was only 275 yards of offense, but that was enough to squeeze out a 13-10 victory to keep Utah unbeaten and on course for a BCS bowl.
Ludwig and the other coaches gather their belongings and head toward the elevator. It's time to celebrate with the team in the locker room.