Jonathan "Mox" Moxon (James Van Der Beek) is an academically gifted backup quarterback for the West Canaan High School football team. Despite his relative popularity at school, easy friendships with other players, and smart and sassy girlfriend Jules Harbor (Amy Smart), Mox is dissatisfied with his life. He wants to leave Texas to go to school at Brown University. He disdains his football-obsessed father (Thomas F. Duffy) and dreads playing it under legendary coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), a verbally abusive, controlling authority who believes in winning "at all costs". He has a strong track record as coach, remarking in a speech that "in my thirty years of coaching football at West Canaan, I have brought two state titles, and 22 district championships!" His philosophy finally takes its toll on Coyotes' quarterback, Lance Harbor (Paul Walker), Mox's best friend and Jules' brother. Lance is manipulated into taking anesthetic shots into an injured knee that finally succumbs to failure and results in even greater injury during gameplay. He is rushed to the hospital, where doctors are appalled at the massive amount of scar tissue found under his knee.
Mox, who has accompanied Lance to the hospital, is shocked when Kilmer feigns ignorance to Lance's doctors about Lance's knee problems, when in fact Kilmer ordered the trainer to inject the shots. In need of a new quarterback, Kilmer reluctantly names Mox to replace Lance as captain and starting quarterback. The move brings unexpected dividends for Mox, one of them being Darcy Sears (Ali Larter), Lance's beautiful blonde cheerleader girlfriend, who is interested in marrying a football player in order to escape small-town life. She even goes so far as to attempt to seduce Mox, sporting a "bikini" made of whipped cream over her otherwise naked body, but he rebuffs her as gently as he can.
Disgusted with Kilmer and not feeling a strong need to win, Mox starts calling his own plays on the field without Kilmer's approval. He also chides his father, screaming at him, "I don't want your life!" The elder Moxon had been a football player at West Caanan, and although Kilmer dismissed him for lacking talent and courage, Moxon still respected and obeyed Kilmer. When Kilmer becomes aware that Mox has won a full scholarship to Brown, Kilmer threatens Mox that if he continues to disobey and disrespect him, the coach will alter Mox's transcripts in order to reverse the decision on his scholarship.
Kilmer's lack of concern for players continues, resulting in a dramatic collapse of Billy Bob (Ron Lester). When Wendell Brown, another friend of Mox's, is injured on the field, Kilmer pressures Brown to take a shot of cortisone to deaden the pain from his injury, allowing him to continue even in the face of a permanent injury. Desperate to be recruited by a good college, Wendell grants his consent. At this moment, Mox tells Kilmer he'll quit the team if the needle enters Wendell's knee. Undaunted, he orders Charlie Tweeder (Scott Caan), a friend of both Mox and Wendell, to replace Mox, but Tweeder refuses. Mox tells Kilmer that the only way they will return to the field is without Kilmer. Realizing that he will be forced to forfeit the game, Kilmer loses control and attacks Mox. The other players intercede and then refuse to take to the field. Knowing his loss of control has cost him his credibility, Kilmer tries in vain to rally support and spark the team's spirit into trusting him, but none of the players follow him out of the locker room. He continues down the hall, and seeing no one following him, turns the other direction and into his office. The team goes on to win the game without his guidance.
In a voice-over epilogue, Mox recounts several characters' aftermaths, including the fact that Kilmer never coached again and that Lance became a successful coach.