During the third quarter of Florida State’s win over Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, we noticed that Jimbo Fisher and the Florida State offense had gone back to using the once-ubiquitous towels to hide the play calls being signaled from the sideline. We asked Fisher about it in the press conference the following morning, and he confirmed that Auburn had indeed succeeded in football’s form of espionage prior to that point.
“They had a couple of our signals a couple times and were getting to them,” Fisher explained. “That happens, people do it, and that's our fault. You've got to change them, constantly rotate them, being able to get them in different ways. That's part of the game. I don't have a problem with that.”
This became a bit of a national story for the first week after the game, as different media outlets discussed the implications of Auburn’s success stealing signals and what kind of impact it had on the game.
Several attentive viewers went back and located a timeout where a clearly frustrated Kelvin Benjamin shouted, “Dameyune [is] calling all the plays!”
Impact on the Game
There is no debating the difference in production before and after the towels came out. In the words of Tomahawk Nation’s Bud Elliot, “After Benjamin shouts that, Florida State runs 30 plays for 229 yards. Its yards-per-play increased by about 75-percent, more commensurate with the highest scoring offense in college football history.”
FSU’s post-towels average of 7.63 yards per play not only accords with the Seminoles’ offensive output on the year (7.41 vs. BCS AQ competition) but also with Auburn’s defensive performances against good competition earlier in the year (e.g., 7.19 vs Georgia; 7.73 vs. Alabama). It’s also very close to our own pre-game guess as to FSU’s per-play average would be against the Tiger defense.
That per-play increase is even bigger when accounting for FSU’s relative success on the first drive, on which the Seminoles went 59 yards on 9 plays (6.5 YPP) before stalling and settling for a field goal. Auburn’s defensive success came in the stretch between that point and Benjamin’s observation on the sideline, particularly the next four drives on which the Noles gained 28 yards on 14 plays (2 YPP) before an 11-play, 66-yard (6 YPP) touchdown drive at the end of the first half.
Even that drive was skewed by a fake punt for a first down and a 21-yard scramble by Winston, as the Auburn defense had otherwise forced a three-and-out and then another 3rd-and-long situation.
The Noles’ first drive of the third quarter was another three-and-out, putting the grand total between the first drive and the second drive of the third quarter (when FSU went to the towels) at 94 yards on 28 plays (3.36 YPP). The Seminoles averaged 7.66 yards per play (291/38) the rest of the game, 2.28 times the production of the other six drives.
How It Happened and Why It Worked
If Auburn was stealing FSU’s signals until the towels came out, why remove the first drive from the equation? And why was that drive more successful than those that came after it? The answer to that question has to do with the means Auburn used to steal the Seminoles’ signals.
After the revelation that Auburn had successfully stolen Florida State’s offensive signals, many were surprised that a coach as typically paranoid about such things as Jimbo Fisher would have let this happen, expressing surprise that Florida State had apparently not changed their signals under the naïve assumption that Auburn would not attempt such chicanery. Fisher, after all, had been mocked for his use of the “towel boys” in previous season.
Fisher had used towels to hide the signals starting with the 2007 game against Alabama and his former boss Nick Saban—who Fisher knew would try to steal signals—and had continued to use them until this season, when the towels disappeared with the changes on the coaching staff, including Craig’s departure to Auburn.
From what we have gathered from inside the program, one of the reasons the towels disappeared this season is that the Seminoles had entirely changed their signals, knowing that former offensive coordinator James Coley was now at rival Miami. Even the way the plays were signaled to different position groups changed. On top of that, Florida State changed signals several times during the season, rotating them to prevent exactly what happened in the title game.
So the reality is that Fisher and the staff by no means naïvely maintained the same signals Craig would have known. They were fully aware that Auburn would likely try to steal signals (heck, the FSU staff does the same where they can). Their mistake was in believing that the fact that they had changed changed and rotated the signals since Craig was on staff would be enough to prevent it from happening against Auburn. It’s also difficult to steal signals efficiently enough to actually get the information to the defense in time to make much of a difference in most cases.
The month off between the end of the regular season and the title game, however, offered the Auburn staff enough time to use game film from earlier in the year to break down FSU’s signal patterns well enough to steal them during the title game.
The fact that Florida State’s offense is really quite simple and depends on a relatively small number of concepts made things easier for Auburn, as did Craig’s familiarity with FSU’s previous signals and nomenclature. Essentially, Craig would already have had a good idea of what kinds of patterns to look for; that is, which signal in the order would be for the formation, which for the protection, which for the pass routes, etc.
Fisher’s offense, albeit simple in its number of concepts, relies on having an answer for everything at the line of scrimmage, with the quarterback often coming to the line with two or even three plays and determining which to run based on the defense. The FSU offense also makes use of packaged plays, which are run/pass plays in which the quarterback is the only person on the offense who knows whether it’ll be a pass or run at the snap. Fisher’s offense also regularly adds “tags” to pass plays to alter a receiver’s route to counter a tendency or take advantage of a specific weakness.
It’s doubtful that Auburn had cracked every signal, but they were able to reconstruct enough to have a good idea of when some of FSU’s most commonly used plays were called, effectively taking away the initiative at the line of scrimmage Fisher’s offense relies upon. Essentially, Auburn’s defensive staff had the chalk last.
Thus it wasn’t that Florida State had not changed the signals (they had) or rotated them (ditto) but that Auburn did an unusually good job using the extra time to break FSU’s code and establish an efficient system for using the signals once stolen.
This also accounts for why the Seminoles’ first drive was more successful than those immediately following: the Auburn staff needed that first handful of plays to hone in on exactly which signals FSU was using for this game. And once they figured it out, the Auburn defense became more than twice as effective as they were for the rest of the game.
Auburn’s staff deserves a lot of credit for using the extra time before the title game extremely well to even the playing field for half the game against the highest scoring offense in NCAA history. And you can rest assured the towels are back to stay at Florida State.