Week One: September 3, 2007
In week one, the play calling is uneventful and conservative, so the season premiere of the MMQB will focus on the art (yes, it's an art, not a science) of football analysis.
Mr. Zemek's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
To get you ready for the rest of the season--which will be better than last weekend's uninspiring slate of matchups, save for Tennessee-Cal--it's worth taking time to explore various ways of analyzing and talking about football games. A nice, tidy way of referring to this week's column is to call it an "Analytical Toolbox." Consider this an attempt to give a diverse audience a number of ways in which to frame a football game and all of its twists and turns. During the year, a few Instant Analysis pieces that emerge right after games on Saturdays will use these different approaches. Straightforward writing is still the best way to describe a game, but one gets the sense that if you've read one game review, you've read them all--one piece of analysis can easily seem little different from another, even if the actual arguments or conclusions are quite different.
Without further ado, then, here is the MMQB Analytical Toolbox for you and your friends (and loved ones) to use on gamedays and, later, on Sunday and Monday as you sort things out:
Tool No. 1: The Legit-O-Meter
This appeared five years ago in this space. It's limitation is that it involves numbers (not my style) and risks taking an overly black-and-white approach, but it's helpful in that it does seek a balance between one team's success and another's failure. On an even more detailed level, this system can seek a balance between one player's success and another player's failure. This is such a central point of football discussion, especially when you arrive at classic football debates such as this one: "Was that a bad tackle by the defender or a good move by the ballcarrier?" Football is full of those kinds of this-or-that questions, so the Legit-O-Meter tries to determine the legitimacy of various components of a football game.
As an example, let's trot out the Michigan-Appalachian State shocker. It's a tricky game to put in perspective because it's both journalistically and emotionally appropriate to give the Mountaineers due credit while also taking Michigan to task. Explanations will follow the Legit-O-Meter profile of this contest:
Extent to which Appalachian State won / Extent to which Michigan lost: 50 percent each Extent to which Michigan's defense was most responsible for the loss: 20 percentMichigan's offense: 45 percentMichigan's special teams: 35 percentExtent to which Appy State's defense was underappreciated in post-game write-ups: no measurable numerical value can be assigned; infinity
Why a 50-50 split, when Michigan had so much talent? Simply put, the boys from Boone, N.C., deserve their day in the sun. They had to fight and scratch and claw just as much as Michigan slacked, moped, and snoozed. If you wanted to say that Michigan lost this game (80 percent to 20 percent), I couldn't blame you at all. But this is why analysis must sometimes factor in emotional elements. When something this special occurs, you have to tip your cap to the team that busted barriers and achieved a breakthrough of biblical proportions.
The percentiles given to Michigan's three units are based on two fundamental considerations: first, it's Michigan's offense that should have made the difference in this game. Maybe the Mountaineers surprised Michigan's young defense, but the other side of the ball should have been the game's real mismatch. Michigan didn't just have talent; the Wolverines had SENIOR talent. Mike Hart held up his end of the bargain, but his senior quarterback and senior receivers spit the bit. There's no way that Chad Henne should complete just 50 percent of his passes against that particular opponent. There's no way that Michigan should have had to settle for so many field goals late in the contest, following Appy State turnovers. There's no way that the UM offense should have been stopped so many times in clutch situations and in sudden-change situations as well. Appy State hanging 34 on the board wasn't the big shock of the game; it was that Michigan couldn't crack 40 points. A putrid effort.
Special teams was second on the list because of the two blocked field goals at the end. Not one, but two. Mind-blowing stuff, to be sure. If Appy State blocked just one field goal, the offensive percentile would have been 60 and special teams 20. But with two blocked field goals--which is the land of the inexcusable--the special teams, on those two plays alone, becomes almost as significant as Michigan's offense in being responsible for the loss.
And finally, you have to find a way to try to express sufficient admiration for what the Mountaineers accomplished. Quarterback Armanti Edwards rightfully received tons of praise after his heroics on Saturday in Ann Arbor, but it was his defense that really made the victory possible. When David plays Goliath and commits late turnovers in a tight game, Goliath's offense usually scores the easy touchdown that puts the game away.
There was just one problem, though: Michigan's offense couldn't get that touchdown (or even run out the clock). That's an astounding defensive effort from Appy State. The guts on that defensive unit are beyond any adequate description or measurement.
Tool No. 2: The Argument System
This is an uncomplicated system which is good for resolving barroom arguments, particularly in the SEC, Big Ten and Big XII, the three conferences whose fans have the biggest emotional investments in college football.
Sometimes, the best way of putting a game into perspective is to formulate the best (and weakest) arguments for both teams, and to evaluate how these arguments stack up. Let's put Tennessee-Cal in the crosshairs with this system.
Best argument you can make for Tennessee after this game: The Vols' offense was more consistent--Cal scored touchdowns on defense and special teams.
Best argument you can make for Cal after this game: The Bears whupped UT up front, in the trenches, on both sides of the ball. Classic domination where it matters most.
Moderately good argument you can make for Tennessee: Though outplayed, the Vols didn't get blown out on the road, in a setting where many other teams would have been.
Moderately good argument you can make for Cal: though Tennessee did get within seven points in the fourth quarter, Cal did pretty much whatever it wanted to in every defining moment of the ballgame.
Weak argument you can make for Tennessee: Erik Ainge played reasonably well.
Weak argument you can make for Cal: DeSean Jackson will return more punts for touchdowns this year and break open other games for us.
Tool No. 3: The Mental Toughness Monitor
Longtime readers of this column (and the Weekly Affirmation) know how much value this columnist places on mental toughness, and on psychology as a primary source of the turning-point moments in football games. This method could also be called the "I Know A Big Moment When I See It" method. Over the weekend, the game suited to "psychoanalysis" was the Wake-Boston College game, an emotionally fragile game with even more pendulum swings than Tennessee-Cal or Appy State-Michigan. The psychological turning point came, quite clearly, when BC's DeJuan Tribble intercepted a pass in the end zone to preserve a 21-all tie. BC rode the momentum from that one play to 14 points, which turned out to be enough for a crucial division victory. BC made many mistakes in its own right, but it made even more big plays, especially at the right times. That's mental toughness which--it should be said--was lacking under Tom O'Brien, who--just in case you missed it--lost his N.C. State home opener to Central Florida on Saturday.
Tool No. 4: The Reductionist Approach
(Note: This will be used during the season. Truly. Just wait.)
One thing that makes it hard for traditional, straightforward pieces of written football analysis to be taken seriously is this: on some occasions, writers will write a lot when, frankly, one play decided the game. Sometimes, an even-steven contest turns on one penalty, one injury, one bounce of the weird-looking ball. In these cases, the reductionist approach is valuable: cut through all the bull and tell it like it is. A similar approach might involve identifying not a play, but a team mindset. In a rout, not much analysis is needed, either: one team came to play, the other didn't. You get the picture.
So from the past weekend, here are a few games that would benefit from a reductionist approach to analysis:
Georgia Tech-Notre Dame: An old-fashioned butt-kicking, period.
Oklahoma State-Georgia: The Bulldogs didn't make very many mistakes, period.
Missouri-Illinois: In a crazy, crazy game with no real rhythm, Illinois threw a late pick deep in Missouri territory. Ballgame.
There are other ways of analyzing games, but these four methods cover a lot of territory and touch on different styles that one can use to put a just-completed football game in its proper context. Choose the method that works for you, but once you do choose a method, try to apply it as consistently and honestly as possible. Have fun, but be responsible, as you advance the cause of football analysis and argumentation in 2007.
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Week Two: September 10, 2007
Jim Leavitt and Derek Dooley win acclaim this week, while the "tweener zone" and "pressure points" come under examination.
Mr. Zemek's e-mail: email@example.com
There were two major play calling dilemmas this past weekend, and on both occasions, the coaches involved made the right decisions. One coach walked away with a victory while the other lost, but remember: you can make good decisions and still lose. (Conversely, you can make bad decisions and still win.)
First off, Jim Leavitt of South Florida basically had the courage to be conservative on Saturday night in Auburn. With his team down by three in the final minute of regulation and his team facing a fourth and goal on the Auburn 2, it would have been oh-so-easy for the Boss Bull to go for it and make the emotionally satisfying decision. However, Leavitt used admirable self-restraint and chose to do the unsexy but responsible thing. He didn't merely avoid going for the touchdown; Leavitt took a delay of game penalty that broadcasters Dan Fouts and Tim Brant didn't seem to understand. If you paid close attention to that fourth and goal situation, you would have seen that the ball was on the far left hashmark. Leavitt altertly noticed that a very short field goal from the far hashmark is a tricky kick. Taking a delay penalty actually improves the kicker's angle and increases the chances of a successful kick. Sure enough, struggling USF placekicker Delbert Alvarado--who had missed four field goals in the game's first 59 minutes--split the uprights to send the game to overtime.
Leavitt's use of the delay penalty was inspired strategy. But on a larger level, the decision to simply kick the field goal was a sound one. It's hard to apply overly rigid guidelines in these kinds of situations--some folks would say that being the home team or an underdog (more on this in a bit) should determine whether teams ought to go for the win or play for overtime at the end of a game. But Leavitt identified the most salient and substantive reason for kicking a field goal and, accordingly, playing for overtime: his team was carrying the play. Auburn's offense was on the run in the second half, and only USF's parade of missed field goals prevented the Bulls from winning in regulation. Leavitt reasoned that if his team was playing better, overtime was a high-percentage move. The end result supported his thinking. Good job, coach.
The other coach who also made the right decision in a "play on or end it here?" situation was first-year coach--and son of an icon--Derek Dooley at Louisiana Tech. Vince Dooley evidently taught his little one well, because Derek made a great call at the end of his team's wild game against Hawaii and Colt Brennan. Down by one in the "bottom half inning" of the first overtime (a college overtime should refer to its sequences as innings, because the scoring principles are the same as extra innings in baseball), Louisiana Tech had the ability to kick a PAT and opt for a second overtime, or go for two and decide the game on the spot. The Bulldogs went for two and missed, but Dooley left the field with his reputation enhanced.
Again, as with South Florida-Auburn and any other game involving this uniquely wrenching dilemma, the important question is always going to be, "Which team is playing better?" Dooley had to feel that Hawaii--so fragile late in regulation but very potent in the first overtime inning--was probably going to score a touchdown each time it got the ball in these supplemental stages of play. The Warriors scored on their first play in the first overtime inning, and with a gunslinger like Colt Brennan slinging the ball around, Tech had little chance of keeping Hawaii from getting seven points in each overtime stanza. For these reasons, it made all the sense in the world for Tech to decide the game on its terms, and to prevent Brennan from having the game in his hands. The actual play was stopped, but the reasoning behind the decision was excellent. Derek Dooley should hold his head high this week. Vince should be extra proud of his son.
Moving beyond play calling and to other areas of football analysis, it's time to dust off a term this space coined a few years ago: "the tweener zone." This is where a lot of close football games are decided. The "tweener zone" isn't the red zone; no, it's the area from midfield to the opponent's 35. This area is a "tweener" area because it's often too far down the field to justify a punt (especially between the 35 and the 40), but too removed from the goal line to justify a field goal. The tweener zone is a helpful football concept and a friend of football analysts because it enables observers to understand how points are or aren't scored.
Between midfield and the opponent's 35, offenses are in situations where one first down (let's say 15 yards) will usually put them in field goal range. The jump from the tweener zone to the area between the 20 and the 35 represents a jump from a non-scoring zone to a scoring zone. (That middle zone, from the 20 to the 35, then leads, of course, to the red zone, the area inside an opponent's 20, leading to the goal line.) This is, consequently, a very important aspect of football games, especially the close ones that come down to a field goal in either direction.
Big games and not-so-big games from the past weekend were significantly affected by the ability of defenses to get tweener zone stops... or, if you prefer, by the inability of offenses to get tweener zone first downs and move into scoring range. South Carolina-Georgia was affected by tweener zone performance levels. Nebraska-Wake Forest involved loads of tweener zone failures that kept the game close and, ultimately, prevented Wake from tying the ballgame. Louisville prevented an upset against Middle Tennessee because the Cardinals were able to finish drives and avoid stalling in the tweener zone. Heck, the Rhode Island-Army game was influenced by tweener zone performance levels. This is a term that should enter your football vocabulary.
Finally this week, a word about "pressure points." Pressure points are part of the larger school of psychologically-based football analysis, because they relate to things such as momentum, confidence, body language, and belief. Teams that surge in "pressure point" situations maximize their psychological and intangible advantages in a sport that's dominated by emotion.
For a perfect example of a "pressure point" football game from the past weekend, see the Boise State-Washington contest, in which a young Husky team knocked off the celebrated Broncos. Just how was this youthful UW club able to spring the upset? By capturing all the pressure points, and by thriving in tense, delicate situations.
Young teams will be nervous in big games, so it's important to relieve pressure by scoring first, and by striking when the game is still in its formative stages. Washington needed a first touchdown much more than Boise; fortunately enough, the Huskies were able to get that first-strike score. It set the tone for the rest of the day.
But the day wasn't done for Ty Willingham's team. After one team throws the first big punch in an important game, it's essential for the other team to make some kind of noteworthy response, to send notice that it's not going to fade away or roll over. Conversely, if the punch-throwing team can then land another big blow, the chances of a comfortable afternoon increase substantially. Again, Washington seized this pressure point by extending its lead and not allowing Boise to come right back. By grabbing a 14-0 lead, the Huskies made Boise sweat a lot more; had the Broncos seized this pressure point by evening the score at 7-all, we would have had a very different kind of game in Seattle.
A third fundamental pressure point concerns momentum and scoring runs: when one team is making a comeback, the leading team needs to do something to stop the bleeding and reverse the tide. Against Boise State, Washington did exactly this. After the Broncos closed the lead to 14-7, the Huskies--led by a fine young quarterback, Jake Locker--immediately drove down the field and scored a field goal. Sure, three isn't as good as seven, but the points gave UW a two-possession (10-point) lead while blunting the Broncos' momentum.
A fourth pressure point to consider is as follows: when an opponent is hanging around and/or teetering well into the second half, land a knockout punch to settle the issue. The Huskies--up 17-7 and having the Broncos on the run--floored their WAC opponent with a 58-yard touchdown pass from Locker to Marcel Reece.
You should get the idea: it's not just how you score or how much you score, but when you score. Washington scored at every critical juncture of Saturday's game against Boise State. That's how a statistically competitive game could be more lopsided on the scoreboard. Learn to apply "pressure points" to college football games throughout the rest of the season.
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Week Three: September 17, 2007
Another season brings lessons in strategy that still haven't been learned by FBS (Division I-A) head coaches. Tisk, tisk.
If you remember last year's Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech game, you would know that Frank Beamer, down by eleven points in the final minute, stubbornly chased a touchdown when, of course, his team trailed by two possessions. We established here at MMQ that if you're down by a touchdown (with or without a two-point conversion) and a field goal, you kick the field goal when you're in field goal range and the clock is under 40 seconds, 35 at the absolute minimum.
It's quite apparent, then, that Colorado head coach Dan Hawkins did not read this column last season.
Colorado trailed Florida State by a score of 16-6 in the final minute late Saturday night (early Sunday in the East), when the Buffs threw a medium-deep pass to get into comfortable field-goal range (the Seminole 18, specifically) with 20 seconds left. But Hawkins, like so many men before him (this includes esteemed company, it should be said: one will recall that Mike Holmgren of the Seattle Seahawks chased a touchdown to the bitter end in Super Bowl XL, with failure predictably emerging from his futile pursuit), continued to try for the touchdown. Ironically but not surprisingly, the Buffs didn't even get the cosmetic seven points.
Why is this so hard for coaches--millionaires in many cases, especially when you include all the perks of the job in addition to base salary and other financial carrots--to ever understand? Two scores means two scores. If you get one score with 5 seconds left, you can't get a second score. This oversight on Hawkins' part is particularly painful because his kickoff man executed a perfect onside kick with 3:39 left. FSU recovered it, but the flight of the ball was exactly how a coach would draw it up on the blackboard. Had the Buffs gained a field goal with roughly 16 seconds left and then recovered an onside kick, they would have had 12 or 13 seconds at their own 40-45. This means they either would have had two Hail Mary attempts, or perhaps one shot from the Florida State 35. But when Hawkins just kept pursuing that first score (the touchdown that never came), his team's chances vanished. If you play to win, you sometimes have to do some counterintuitive things, and this is what so many coaches simply cannot manage to do. It's quite staggering, especially when history repeats itself year after year.
Next up for examination is the end of the Arkansas-Alabama game.While Razorback head coach Houston Nutt didn't do a poor job in the final minutes, he--like countless coaches before him--does need to devote specific attention to one underappreciated aspect of late-game strategy when protecting a one-possession lead and trying to run out the clock. The game from 2006 that paralleled Hogs-Tide was the UCLA-Notre Dame game in South Bend. Karl Dorrell--in the final minutes--chose to drain timeouts and basically not make a vigorous attempt to claim a final first down. On Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Nutt chose to do the same at a time when Darren McFadden was suffering from cramps. This is a perfectly understandable and legitimate strategy, so Nutt shouldn't come in for too much criticism. But when Nutt encounters this situation in the future, he--along with other coaches in similar spots--need to make sure their (perhaps unsteady) quarterbacks are better prepared.
Nutt did what he did (and it was the same for Dorrell last year in South Bend) because he didn't have complete trust in his quarterback. If a coach does have complete and unconditional trust in his signal caller, he will call a pass play on first down to get six yards and put the defense in a bind. That, after all, is how you should almost always go about the process of getting a final first down to seal a victory in a clock-draining situation. (The exceptions would be at Florida, USC and Oklahoma, where stud offensive lines or running quarterbacks can do special things without having to pass.) But with Casey Dick under center, Nutt rightly shied away from giving his quarterback the keys to the Ferrari, no questions asked. The Arkansas coach followed a wise and logical course of action by keeping the ball on the ground on first and second down, and then trying for the first down on third and long.
Here, though, is where Nutt and his brother coaches need to improve in the future: when you don't trust your quarterback (often out of necessity; that's not a football sin by any means), a third-down pass needs to be a very conditional venture. In the Alabama game Saturday night, Casey Dick had no one open on his third-and-long pass attempt. Yet, the quarterback (showing why his coach doesn't trust him unconditionally) threw the pass anyway. Predictably, it hit the ground and stopped the clock. The moral of the story is simple and recognizable enough: if a third-down pass isn't open, you tuck the ball in, get what few yards you can, and go down in bounds. If the pass is open, then throw the darn thing, but if not, you need to do the next best thing and drain either 40 more seconds or an opponent's final timeout (in this case, Bama had no timeouts, so a 40-second runoff was denied the Hogs when Dick threw his ill-advised pass).
An interesting dilemma emerged for BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall in the final two and a half minutes of his team's loss at Tulsa Saturday night.
See what you think about this situation--it's a rare one that doesn't crop up all that often. BYU trailed by eight (55-47) and had a couple of timeouts remaining with roughly 2:20 left in the fourth quarter. The Cougars faced a 4th and 20, but they had the ball in comfortable field goal range at the Tulsa 22 (which translates into a 39-yard field goal, a kick that promises a reasonably high percentage). What do you do? Go for the touchdown because you're already pretty close to begin with, and because you won't get many more chances? Or do you kick the field goal to trail by five, knowing that you can get one stop, save clock by burning your remaining timeouts, and not have to sweat out a two-point try?
That's a very tough call for any coach, and the MMQ won't presume to definitively know which choice is better. One certainly can't fault Mendenhall for chasing the brass ring and trying to get the tying touchdown when the opportunity presented itself. However, with that said, it's important to pay attention to the details in each situation, and in this particular instance, it's worth pointing out that it was a 4th and 20, not 4th and 7. The field goal was a 39-yarder, not a 49-yarder or 29-yarder. These two details should go a long way toward determining a coach's decision in this kind of moment. The shorter the distance on fourth down, the more a coach should chase the first down and/or touchdown. The longer the field goal, the more a coach should go for the first down. Mendenhall was in a bind here because he had a long distance to go for the first down, and because the field goal--while under 40 yards--was not a chip shot. If BYU faced 4th and goal from the 17, a field goal would have been a wiser choice. If, on the other hand, BYU stared down a 4th and 7 from the 25, the first down would be a much more appropriate option. At any rate, it was a fascinating little scenario in Oklahoma, and the MMQ would gladly welcome feedback on this unique topic. Strategies in eight-point games (as opposed to nine-point games or six-point games) typically pose the toughest choices to head coaches. Seven-point-game strategies are nearly as difficult. Keep paying attention throughout the season to take notes on late-game scenarios involving eight-point and seven-point leads, or the point spreads (higher or lower) that can lead to eight- or seven-point margins.
Quick hitters in the world of play calling and strategy from the past weekend:
Ty Willingham of Washington punted inside his own 30 on 4th and 4... with under 5:30 left in a game his team trailed by two possessions. Again, when you're losing by a couple possessions, normal rules of football no longer apply...
Not that it helped their teams in the long run, but Phil Fulmer and Charlie Weis made fourth-down gambles in the first halves of their teams' games. Bill Callahan of Nebraska, on the other hand, kicked a field goal inside the 5 (but got a reprieve when a rare "disconcerting" penalty was called against USC). You need touchdowns to win big games in which you find yourself generally outgunned. Kudos to coaches who realized this, demerits to those who didn't.
You're Chan Gailey of Georgia Tech. You're down 14 to a Boston College team with an offense clearly good enough to tack on at least a field goal in the final 10:33 of regulation. Yet, you kick a 32-yard field goal (meaning you were at the BC 15) to get within eleven points. And that move accomplished... what?
Al Borges, Jason Campbell is no longer your quarterback at Auburn. One really good year can only buy you so much political capital and job security.
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Week Four: September 24, 2007
With a paucity of really close games over the past weekend, the biggest play-calling issue to emerge from week four of the 2007 season was an unexpected one: fake field goals, and when to expect them.
The issue of defending against fake field goals (and while we're at it, fake punts--though that's an appreciably different animal for a number of evident reasons) is made difficult because so many kicks can be (and are) blocked. Usually, going after a kick offers a great chance for a team to make an impact play that can change not just fortunes, but momentum. Few things fire up a team quite like blocking a kick, so it's wise for coaches to aggressively attack kicks instead of sitting back against them.
Like all other rules or principles, however, they're made to be broken--there are times when you have to make exceptions.
It was entirely understandable that South Carolina attacked Colt David's field-goal attempt in the second quarter of Saturday's game against LSU. The kick would have given the Tigers a two-possession lead, so there was considerable value in attacking the kick and trying to keep the lead at seven points. Moreover, Matt Flynn and David executed the fake so perfectly that you just had to tip your cap (or visor, as was the case with a smiling Steve Spurrier) and fight the next battle. With that said, however, there should always be clues and cues that can tip off a team to a fake, and if the Head Ball Coach thought long and hard enough, he still could have sniffed out a fake against LSU.
There was nothing alarming or unique about the formation involved in LSU's fake field goal, but the hint should have come on the previous play, a third and long on which Tiger offensive coordinator Gary Crowton ordered a vanilla running play into the heart of the line. It wasn't a change-of-pace run, a misdirection run, or any kind of running play with some funky stuff thrown in. It was billy basic, cookie-cutter, Main Street, plain-jane unsweetened oatmeal. No taste, no excitement, no risk at all. With Matt Flynn struggling as a downfield passer, that play call had to elicit a long and profound "hmmmmmmmmmm....." from the Gamecock sideline. Given the rare sequence that preceded the fourth down situation, a fake became a much greater possibility. When this happens, just wait for the fake and try not to block the sucker. Spurrier shouldn't have been expected to know it was coming, but just the same, he could have picked up on signs that something strange was afoot.
If you watched ESPN Classic's broadcast of the Army-Boston College game from Saturday, you would have seen a situation in which a coaching staff should have been expected to sniff out a fake. Army's kicking game is weak; the Black Knights hadn't even attempted a kick of over 40 yards on the season, and punter Owen Tolson was handling the placekicking duties against Boston College. When Army, down 16-0, had a 4th and 5 at the BC 31 midway through the second quarter, BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski--who is still having an exceptional year (one call or reaction does not a coaching season make)--should have had his alarm bells ring. A 48-yarder by a fill-in placekicker? In a 16-point game? On the road? Hell--let's see the Army kicker make the field goal with zero BC players on the field, let alone all eleven. There would be precious little point in trying to block the kick for every possible reason. It would do little to chip into BC's lead, and a miss would have given the Eagles solid field position at their own 31. The only bad thing that could happen would be for a fake to bust a big gainer. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened, as holder Andrew Rinehart flipped the pigskin to Mike Evans, who rumbled 24 yards for an easy first down up the right sideline. The only question I was asking myself before the play started was, "Is Army quick-kicking a punt, or are they faking it?"
If you think long and hard enough, you'll quickly come to the realization that in the world of kicks--especially field goals--there are some situations in which it is both advisable to anticipate a fake and strategically safe to allow a kick to take place. When these situations emerge, there's no excuse for being snookered by a fake field goal. South Carolina and Steve Spurrier generally come out okay in this discussion, but Jeff Jagodzinski and Boston College have very little excuse. Of course, the way the season's going in Chestnut Hill, this might be the only weakness Jagodzinski has displayed. Nevertheless, he--and other coaches in similar situations, in this season and beyond--need to pay closer attention to the world of mysterious-looking field goals that carry little strategic benefit to the team that is ready to attempt them... or so one thinks.
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Week Five: October 1, 2007
With the Mike Gundy story demanding special and exclusive attention in the Weekly Affirmation, we move the other components of the column to this week's Monday Morning Quarterback.
We start with another "citizen journalist" entry, this one provided by Frank Rega, a member of the Rutgers University Class of 1965. Mr. Rega has his own views about collegiate athletics mushrooming out of control, but his act of journalistic legwork is found in his presentation of a short commentary delivered by a Roman Catholic priest who spoke about the athletic-industrial complex in a parish newsletter. The Weekly Affirmation/Monday Morning Quarterback wishes to state, for the record, that Mr. Rega--being ethical and of sound character--formally secured the approval of his pastor, who subsequently gave the green light to have his commentary run in this space. We're honored to have Frank Rega and Father Richard Williams appear in cyberspace. If you have comments for the two gentlemen, I will--of course--forward them along.
Citizen Journalist Entries: Money and Manners in Collegiate Athletics
"College football games only prove that the professional athletes recruited by one school and paid in the form of tens of thousands of dollars worth of scholarships, were able to outplay another school's professional athletes paid off in similar kind. In the meantime, the real students, who are studying to be teachers, scientists, businesspeople or historians, were in the stands watching the game.
When I had read about the foul language with which the Navy players, a couple of games ago, were greeted by a small but rowdy group of Rutgers fans, I thought back to games I attended in the 1960's. I cannot recall even one instance of anyone on either side shouting out profanities--it was unthinkable. However, in reading comments in the news forums from some of the people who defend this behavior, one gets the impression that they believe it is perfectly normal and acceptable to act this way at sports events. Is this the harvest to be reaped by emphasizing big-time university sports? When I read this article by Fr. Williams, it seemed to perfectly summarize the problem as well as the solution."
-- Frank Rega, Rutgers 1965
This article is dated 9/23/07 by Fr. Richard C. Williams, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Glenn Mills PA, (Philly suburb).
"In the 1950's Bishop (Fulton) Sheen joked that every college should have three football teams: one for offense, one for defense, and one to attend class. It was simpler in the beginning. Students from one school would play students from another. Anybody could try out for the team. Then came athletic scholarships -- two words that are unrelated. Today, colleges are offering scholarships to those not yet out of grade school. The University of Arizona recently offered a scholarship to a 7th grader; Syracuse is recruiting a 15-year-old who has yet to play in a high school basketball game. He has problems with both academics and discipline. U.S.C. has received commitments from two 8th graders. Even our local colleges recruit early because of the intense competition for athletes. But does being a good athlete automatically make one college material? Emphasizing sports over academics sometimes affects even our Catholic high schools and grade schools. There are instances of students repeating 8th grade in order to increase their chances of a successful sports career in high school. I guess you have to plan carefully if you're headed for the Big Show. Schools like the Penn Quakers were once nationally prominent in football. But the Ivy League long ago decided for academic excellence over success in sports. They, along with Army and Navy, remain a refreshing contrast to much of the collegiate scene. Real students playing real students -- and no need for Bishop Sheen's third team."
Fr. Richard C. Williams is the pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Glenn, Mills, Pa.
Lessons from a Special Saturday
Over the weekend, you--the college football fans of America--remembered what a classic Upset Saturday smelled like. On at least one Saturday per season, the dominoes seem to fall rapidly and in clusters. Hopefully, the cyclical nature of this sport--and the repetition of patterns that always find a way to emerge once again--will begin to convince you (if they haven't already) that recruiting, while necessary to provide quality depth, is overrated when it comes to depending on a few key individuals. Just as coaches are treated like messiahs upon their arrival or run out of town when things go bad, so it also is for players. Quarterbacks can be treated as the second coming if they're hyped enough; some, like Tim Tebow, prove to be the real deal, while others--think Jimmy Clausen--don't. But aside of the extreme examples provided by those two men, this sport is too mentally demanding. It is downright foolish to expect individual players to be psychologically impervious to the white-hot pressures involved, especially when teams play the first three or four weeks of the season in their home state, only to finally leave the comfy cocoon of cozy confines. Sam Bradford's first bad game came in his first game outside the state of Oklahoma. Mere coincidence? I would think not. Dennis Dixon rolled it up on slow defenses, but the flop sweat returned come "money time" against Cal. Teams were caught looking ahead this past weekend, much as many other teams were caught in a "hangover game" the previous weekend. The years melt into decades, but the same patterns of college football will always be with us. Boys not yet 20 years old will look ahead and get distracted, and once the psychology works against you in this sport, you're cooked unless you can quickly flip the script in dramatic fashion. South Carolina was headed for defeat against Mississippi State until a blocked punt late in the third quarter turned the contest around on a dime. The Gamecocks avoided a stunning loss because they were able to create a seismic shift, a lightning-fast reversal of fortune, precisely when their morale was sinking like a ten-ton boulder.
Professional sports teams and the executives who run them are continuing to realize that character means more these days in the cutthroat world of big-time athletic competition. Talent will always have its place, but the people who manage sports teams for a living are increasingly convinced that they'd rather have a little more character and a little less talent in the 21st century. So if professional sports execs realize that character counts, how much more that must apply in the emotionally fragile world of college football. Recruiting hype is so overrated. It's time to stop the absurd meat-market feeding frenzy surrounding the recruiting business. Sure, teams still need to recruit good players, but the value of recruiting is found in the aggregate, not in the individual. If we turned down (or off--I know I'm hoping for way too much here) the hype machine, perhaps coaches could teach their players out of the spotlight, and thereby have an even better chance of instilling character into kids who live on the edge of opportunity. Then we'll see better football, but also--and much more importantly--better-educated kids who learn holistically through their experiences of college athletics. Wouldn't that be the ultimate victory?
Stop, close your eyes, make sure you're not dreaming, and then pinch yourself just to make sure all this is really happening:
A shaky Wisconsin team is fifth in the nation. Number six? South Florida. Seventh? A Boston College team that was downright horrible against UMass and less than inspiring against Army the week before. The No. 8 team in the United States of America is a Kentucky crew that needed an improbable touchdown pass to beat a not-very-good Louisville club in the final minute. Kentucky is the same squad that, without one of those script-flipping lightning-bolt plays mentioned above, would have had its face smashed into the pavement by an Arkansas team that was running the Wildcats into the ground in Fayetteville on Sept. 22. Thursday night, Kentucky versus South Carolina matches No. 8 versus No. 11. Surreal doesn't remotely begin to describe what is transpiring in this college football season.
The events of the past weekend, and the rankings they have produced, make me want to channel my inner Lloyd Bentsen, with a football twist: "Senator, I knew college football. College football was a friend of mine. 2007 season, you're no college football. Try this one, too: "Senator, I knew No. 6 teams in the country. No. 6 teams in the country were friends of mine. South Florida, you're no No. 6 team in the country.No offense to South Florida--the Bulls are the legitimate Big East favorite at this particular point in time, and Jim Leavitt is positively standing on his head, so good is the body of work he's producing in Tampa--but that's not a No. 6 team. Good lord, no--not with that many turnovers against West Virginia. Not with a quarterback who, while having a warrior spirit like none other, is simply lacking in top-shelf ability.
What does all this mean? It means that this season--from now on--is going to be one great confirmation of the chaos theory. Atoms and protons and neutrons and electrons will be randomly and blindly smashing into each other, football-style. We'll see where all the particles--errr, teams--end up on the morning of Dec. 2.
Some folks--folks in a town called Bristol, Connecticut--either wrote or said over the weekend that USC and LSU separated themselves from the pack. Well, with USC losing two starting offensive linemen and Matt Flynn playing decidedly mediocre ball under center, it should be quite obvious that no one is--or will be--even remotely safe as this season continues. Unless something unexpected happens, we're looking at a multi-car BCS pileup, a train wreck scenario that would make 2003 seem benign by comparison.
The weekend's examples of criminally bad officiating, part one: the refusal of the replay booth to uphold a fumble call with 14:52 left in the fourth quarter of Boise State's win over Southern Miss last Thursday evening. The overwhelming extent to which officials lean toward interpreting incomplete passes over and against fumbles is a source of unending perplexity. I once again ask officials and officiating supervisors (if they ever read this column): if a receiver can tap down one foot in bounds and then step out of bounds with legal possession of the ball, how is the same act--when performed in the middle of the field--not a football move? One of these days, I'm going to bust up a television when that erroneous rule interpretation once again surfaces. LSU fans are STILL mad about being jobbed and robbed last year at Auburn, when a fourth-down catch was denied by that same erroneous rule interpretation.
Criminally bad officiating, part two: when South Carolina stopped Mississippi State on a third-down play in the red zone on Saturday afternoon, stuffing a halfback option pass before it developed, a phantom defensive holding call was made against a member of the Gamecocks' secondary. The penalty must have been for "breathing," not holding. Much like the phony pass interference penalty that stole a touchdown from the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, officials sometimes make calls based on astoundingly small amounts of contact. In basketball, that's hard to truly officiate with any consistency. In football, it shouldn't be as hard.
Proof that Florida lost simply because the Gators' heads weren't into the Auburn game on Saturday night: whereas a fake punt delivered Florida from danger against South Carolina in a narrow win last season, another fake punt--which did gain a first down against the Tigers Saturday night--was nullified because the punter didn't line up properly. The extra measure of focus belonging to last year's club is and has been missing from Florida this season. The realm of the mental is trumping the realm of the physical for Urban Meyer's bunch. Auburn wasn't more talented than the Gators, and never will be; Florida snoozed and went on to lose. Period.
Just asking: have you seen a better tackle in recent memory than the one made by USC's Keith Rivers against Washington's Jake Locker with 37 seconds left in the third quarter of Saturday night's game? Locker is a big, strong specimen with speed to burn, and Rivers ran across the field to chase him down and horse-collar U-Dub's bucking bronco. Unreal.
Gee, Greg Robinson and Syracuse: nice way to sustain the post-Louisville momentum by losing to Miami of Ohio.
Anyone still want to tell me that John Parker Wilson is the real deal at Alabama?
Ron Zook: your day in the sun is richly deserved. Your hard work is continuing to pay off. Just remember when you make a bowl game, though, to send Anthony Morelli a nice Christmas card.
There were lots of huge wins on Saturday, of course, but none more cathartic than the one produced by Colorado. Overcoming a 2-10 season is one thing; being able move past the jarring and scarring Gary Barnett years (and the poor way in which Barnett himself was treated by the UC administration) is an even bigger accomplishment, and that's exactly what happened when Dan Hawkins' team said, "Later, Sooners!" on Saturday.
Just when it seemed Navy was in trouble of losing its grip on the Commander-in-Chief Trophy, Paul Johnson rallied 'round the flag and got his kids to elevate their game against Air Force. The folks in Annapolis continue to revel in their great good fortune of having one of the very best coaches in the United States.
The Clemson Tigers have different players each and every season, like any other college sports team. How, then, can one football program display the exact same tendencies, personality traits, and psychological quirks each and every season? Are there some eight-year veterans on this team that we don't know about?
We're sitting here wondering when Michigan State and Arizona State will follow the path of Clemson. But with the way those two teams are being coached this season, the Spartans and Sun Devils might not repeat history. Stay tuned.
You want predictions on the Red River Rivalry and Florida-LSU? My editor will force me to give my picks on all the games--as is the case each week--but let me say this in advance: while being contractually obligated to make picks, I'd be lying if I told you that I had the slightest idea of what to expect in these titanic tilts. I don't have the foggiest notion of what will happen. Again, college football season has become an exercise in chaos theory. Sit back and be prepared to expect just about anything.
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Week Six: October 8, 2007
Diary of a Day, Part Two
For part one of this diary, go to the Weekly Affirmation. This is a blow-by-blow account of Saturday's college football dramas, as they happened in real time. The fun started at 9:12 in the morning, but only now are the marquee matchups flooding the networks and filling the time slots. Safe to say, the nighttime was the right time for sporting spectacles and scenarios that won't soon be forgotten.
5:15 p.m., Pacific (Seattle) time, Colorado with no letdown against Baylor, up 17-0. Good for Dan Hawkins and his kids.
5:19 p.m.: Rutgers QB Mike Teel bobbles the ball three times and Cincinnati recovers. A promising drive is abruptly halted for the Scarlet Knights.
5:28: That looked like an Ohio State touchdown, but the play deserved a review.
5:29: Cincinnati flying on defense against Rutgers.
5:30: Tim Tebow with an 11-yard strike. Florida needs to establish a vertical passing game against LSU.
5:32: Cincinnati misses a field goal, so both teams have provided early gifts in Piscataway.
5:33: Florida and Kestahn Moore running hard and powerfully. Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen flung the pigskin first, and then came back with the ground game. Good play sequencing from the Gator braintrust.
5:35: The stats say Tebow gained three yards. The eyes say Tebow made one helluva play to avoid a crippling sack.
5:36: That's a play Mullen should stay away from. "Tebow up the middle" is a crutch, and it also subjects the quarterback to a pounding.
5:37: Ohio State driving. Purdue has rarely if ever won this kind of game (namely, a big one), and this could get ugly very soon.
5:38: Field goal, Florida. 3-0. Your serve, Matt Flynn.
5:40: Touchdown, Ohio State.
5:41: Touchdown, Rutgers, on a pick-six. After the loss to Maryland, an early lead is huge for Greg Schiano's boys. It doesn't matter one whit that the defense produced the points.
5:43: Matt Flynn flinches. He throws a ball behind an open receiver on a quick slant, and the "deflection that causes interception" (much like "the abomination that causes desolation") gives Florida an early opportunity.
5:47: It's early in the game, but LSU's Alley Highsmith has already knocked down two Tebow passes.
5:48: LSU's defense gets a big three-and-out.
5:49: Cincy answers with a touchdown to tie Rutgers. Brian Kelly has clearly instilled some mental toughness into his team.
5:51: LSU and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton flashing some creativity via Ryan Perrilloux. A fake end-around pitch, followed by an eight-yard run and a delayed option pitch. A sign of things to come. The Tigers will run some variations of that play before the night is over.
5:54: LSU tries a power run. No dice against the Gators' front seven.
5:56: An old demon gets LSU: a bad drop by an open receiver who was about to rip off a big gain. It's amazing how certain flaws remain in the same programs over many years.
5:57: This is how bad Notre Dame's offense is: the Irish, after a turnover caused by their defense, started a drive at the UCLA 2. They ended the drive on the 9. It's 3-3 in Pasadena.
5:59: There's a wasted trick play. As the astute Gary Danielson ("astute Gary Danielson" is a redundant phrase) pointed out, the play should have involved a bubble screen or flat pass behind the wall of linemen set wide.
6:04 p.m., Pacific time: Field goals for Rutgers (up 10-7) and Ohio State (up 17-0).
Wow! USC up just 9-7 over Stanford in the third. THIS is stunning. That the Stanford touchdown came on a pick-six is really shocking. This is a BAD (not mediocre; BAD) USC passing game right now, on October 6, 2007.
6:07: Fred Davis gets a first down for USC with a 3rd and 5 reception. He then fumbles, and the Cardinal recover. It's getting tense in the Coliseum.
6:09: Lost in the implosion of SC's passing game is the fact that Pete Carroll's defense is throwing a shutout and playing flawlessly.
6:10: Tebow to Harvin. A staple play gets Florida to the LSU 2.
6:11: I beat you by two seconds, Verne Lundquist (okay, maybe 1.4 seconds...). Yes, that wasn't quite the jump pass from last year, but it was still impressive and effective. 10-0, Gators. If I'm Les Miles, I need to keep Ryan Perrilloux on the field for a few snaps.
6:17: Booty gets picked again, but Stanford doesn't get points (or even a drive start in USC territory). USC's two-point lead is unsettling in an obvious sense, but it still feels weirdly safe.
6:19: Interception, USC. LSU converts 3rd and 2 to get to the Florida 39. Flynn completes another pass to the Gator 27.
6:22: LSU playing pitch and catch with relative ease.
6:23: On 3rd and 2 from his own 37, Booty uses play action to hit Fred Davis on a downfield pass, and the tight end shrugs off an undersized Stanford defender to take it the distance. 16-7, USC.
6:24: Flynn converts a big 3rd and 8 on a perfectly executed wide receiver screen.
6:25: Florida's Jermaine Cunningham somehow disrupts Perrilloux's 3rd and goal pass. The Tigers will go for it from the 1.
6:28: USC has outgained Stanford, 379-73. And the Trojans lead by only nine?
6:30: Perrilloux walks in for the touchdown. Good play selection by Gary Crowton.
6:31: Just when Stanford seemed likely to go away, the Cardinal hit a bomb to the USC 2.
6:36: Touchdown, Stanford. Touchdown, Missouri (7-0 over Nebraska early on). Tebow leads the Gators downfield again.
6:37: Oklahoma State 17, Texas A&M 0, early in the third quarter. Bye-bye, Fran.
6:41: Tebow made a huge glove save there. Almost a 16-yard loss if that bad snap isn't caught. Almost. Instead, first and goal for Florida.
6:43: USC converts a 3rd and 1 just past midfield in a 16-14 game.
Touchdown, USC. Booty to Ronald Johnson for 45 yards. Trojans up by nine again, 23-14.
6:46: On 3rd and goal from the 9 (not the 3, but the 9), Tebow positively floats into the end zone. Lundquist started saying "touchdown" when No. 15 crossed the 5. Know what's really scary? I couldn't fault Verne for being premature.
6:52: Florida's soft coverage enables LSU to move the ball easily in a two-minute (offense) framework. The combo of an insufficient pass rush and a suspect secondary is Florida's biggest pair of weak spots. (Tebow will mask most, if not all, offensive shortcomings.)
6:54: Stanford kicks a field goal, but USC jumps offside. First down, Cardinal. USC jumps offside again. SC is injured, but there's precious little excuse for the kinds of mistakes the Trojans are making right now.
6:56: After Florida gets a little pressure and cranks up the defensive intensity, Colt David biffs a field goal, enabling the Gators to head to the locker room with a 17-7 lead.
6:59: USC holds. Stanford still gets the field goal after all, but two minutes fall off the clock.
7:05: Patrick Turner gets four yards for USC on a huge 3rd and 3. Four and a half minutes left in L.A.
7:06: Stanford gets a sack to force a 2nd and 19.
7:07: A screen to Chauncey Washington is smothered. 3rd and 19.
7:08: INTERCEPTION, STANFORD! Ball on the USC 45 with 2:50 left. Buckle up.
7:09: Jim Harbaugh goes for the whole enchilada without hesitation. SC drops a pick in the end zone.
7:10: Pass interference on USC. Good call. Ball on the Trojan 30.
7:11: What should have been an eight-yard loss on a busted halfback option pass becomes a four-yard gain. USC playing nervous football and basically feeling the heat. An injury on the field creates a break in the action.
7:13: Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard scrambles for a first down to the USC 19.
7:14: Incomplete pass--broken up on the left sideline.
7:15: Holding, Stanford, at the worst possible moment.
7:16: USC finally gets a little pressure from a corner blitz. Incomplete pass. 3rd and 20.
7:17: The Stanford receiver stepped out of bounds on his own power before coming back in bounds. Incomplete pass, proper ruling.
7:18: FIRST DOWN, STANFORD! The Cardinal convert a 4th and 20, as SC still can't get to Pritchard.
7:20: They're reviewing the play to determine the spot. The ball should be on the nine and a half yard line. I don't know if that should produce a first down or not...
7:22: The play (in other words, the spot) stands. First down. I can accept the spot.
7:23: I love Jim Harbaugh's thought process. A run to the 5. Run at least some clock. Decide the game here. Don't give Booty a real shot if you score.
7:25: Incomplete, back of the end zone.
7:26: Incomplete, corner of the end zone. 4th and ballgame from the 5.
7:27: Timeout, Stanford. 54 ticks left. This needs to be a rollout with Pritchard, or perhaps the Statue of Liberty or some other Boise State special. Here we go...
7:28: Wait. Timeout, USC. No timeouts for Troy if Stanford scores.
7:29: TWELVE IN THE HUDDLE FOR STANFORD. Wow! Now from the 10. A run-pass option just went out the window.
7:30: HE CAUGHT IT! Nothing but a simple jump ball, and Stanford's Mark Bradford beat USC's Mozique McCurtis for the score, with 49 seconds left.
7:31: PAT good. Stanford by one. The biggest upset ever? Very possibly so if the Cardinal can hang on.
7:32: Harbaugh on the sideline: "Let's finish it! Let's finish it! Let's finish it!"
7:33: Personal foul face mask on Stanford to give SC a drive start at its own 41.
7:34: Sack! Remember, no timeouts for SC. Ball spiked with 27 seconds left.
7:35: Turner was wide open, but the pass clangs off his hands. 4th and 17.
7:36: No, it's not a dream. Lil' ol' Stanford 24, USC 23. Final. Words are my stock and trade, but they're not coming.
7:41: Tiger Stadium--in response to the announcement of USC's loss--has another Tommy Hodson "earthquake" moment, nearly 19 years to the day after the original event. What a sight (and what a sound!) for anyone lucky enough to have a seat in the house.
7:45: The earthquake moment quickly fades, as Tebow rocks LSU with an easy touchdown pass. 24-14, Gators. (Oh yeah, that's right--LSU scored a touchdown while I followed the amazing turn of events in Los Angeles.)
7:47: They'll call this "Black Saturday" in Los Angeles. UCLA is handing Notre Dame turnovers, points, and Charlie Weis' first win of 2007. The City of Angels doesn't mind the lack of an NFL team, but that's because the college ball has been pretty good. Today, though, might change things. A note about Karl Dorrell: given that the Bruins really wanted to avenge last year's devastating loss in South Bend, a loss to a horrible Notre Dame team is a particularly damning indictment of the UCLA program.
7:52: Florida and Jermaine Cunningham pressure Flynn again, and an LSU drive is halted. Sometimes, football isn't very complicated.
7:55: Kestahn Moore is powering through LSU's defense, but while the skill people get the accolades, it's Florida's offensive line that's going above and WAY beyond the call tonight.
7:57: Cincinnati, once down 17-7, scores a touchdown to take a 21-20 lead in New Jersey.
8:00 p.m., Pacific time: Florida fumbles and Rutgers gets intercepted.
8:01: Touchdown, Cincinnati, on a bomb. 28-20, Bearcats.
8:04: After a flurry of momentous events, a brief breather and some channel surfing reveal that A&M has taken a late 24-23 lead over Oklahoma State. Franchione might not leave the Ranchione just yet...
8:08: Oklahoma State roughs the Aggie punter with 1:46 left. (Insert your choice of Franchione or Mike Gundy reference here; plenty of material to work with.)
8:09: UCLA with another turnover. Oh, the carnage in L.A. tonight.
8:10: Get this: after Florida's increasingly confident and physical defense stopped LSU at the Gator 20, the Tigers--with Florida not rushing the field goal (LSU's kinda good at this fake field goal thing...)--commit a holding penalty. What's even more amazing is that Colt David missed the un-attacked kick. Gators still lead by ten.
8:13: For the second time in the past 20 minutes of real time, Florida bails LSU out of jail. A poorly designed route and the turn of Cornelius Ingram's head produce an interception inside the Gator 30.
8:16: Joe Haden makes a monster tackle to stuff a 3rd and 1 from the Florida 2. 4th and 3 from the 4.
8:17: Flynn, on a must-make play, calmly throws a strike for a vital touchdown. Game on. The hitting in this game has been sensational, with Florida dealing out most of the punishment. LSU is playing poorly but fighting quite admirably. The Gators have to be very irritated after giving the Tigers nine lives (and then some).
8:24: Brandon James was out of bounds at the 14. Why is Les Miles challenging? Talk about high risk, low reward.
8:26: Cincinnati pounds out a 3rd and 1 at midfield, leading (now) 28-23 with 7:30 left.
8:27: Just when Bearcat quarterback Ben Mauk looked like Tebow Lite, he fumbled at the Rutgers 37. The Scarlet Knights get saved.
8:28: How is there no flag against LSU on that 3rd and 4? Wow.
8:31: Cincy's defense forces a Rutgers punt with 4:52 left on the banks of the old Raritan.
8:32: Touchback on the Rutgers punt.
8:33: Offensive pass interference puts LSU in a hole.
8:34: 4th and 1. LSU going for it near midfield.
8:35: Wow. Jacob Hester with a late, late (did I say late?) surge to get the first down. The play was initially stuffed, but Hester got the first down through sheer will.
8:37: Lots of mistakes tonight, but the effort of both Florida and LSU has been extraordinary. More great hitting, chasing, reacting and gaming from all involved.
8:39: Notre Dame wins. It's official: Black Saturday in L.A.
8:41: Gary Danielson, after Joe Haden stops a 3rd and 1: "He's only a freshman."
8:42: Les Miles knows no fear. LSU gets a ballsy first down by inches. Danielson marvels at the quality of competition. I fully agree.
8:43. Incomplete. 2nd and goal for LSU at the 5.
8:44: Three yards. Third and goal at the two and a half yard line. A buck-fifteen left and counting. Urban Meyer with a timeout. What a ferocious football fistfight.
8:45: Oh, there's this modestly interesting game in New Jersey. Rutgers, down by five, has a first down at the Cincinnati 24 with 1:44 left.
8:46: Touchdown, LSU. Cincy picks off Rutgers in the red zone. Jacob Hester is the last player to get up after scoring for the Tigers. That lad spilled his guts tonight. He'll be the toast of Baton Rouge if the Tigers can hold on in the final 1:09.
8:50: Cincy gets a first down, and it's all over in Piscataway.
8:52: Tebow taking way too much time. If you don't throw beyond the sticks, you're basically wanting to fail in a two-minute drill.
8:54: Tebow scrambles for a first down at midfield.
8:55: Timeout, Florida. Either a Hail Mary or a Boise State play.
8:56: One chance left. LSU on the verge of being No. 1 with no comparable contenders.
8:59: The final play: batted down in the back of the end zone. The Gators are crushed, the Tigers exultant. The vivid emotional portraits tell you how badly these two teams hungered for ultimate victory. Many games will involve more artistry, but none have witnessed more effort than this 15-round heavyweight bout. Florida-LSU 2007 reminds us why college football is the best sport on the planet.
9:10 p.m., Pacific time: Time to write a cartload of Instant Analysis pieces. A postscript will follow...
12:23 a.m., Pacific time, Sunday morning: the last Instant Analysis piece gets filed. (Games assessed under the Instant Analysis banner: Florida-LSU, Stanford-USC, Oklahoma-Texas, Cincy-Rutgers, Ohio State-Purdue, Virginia Tech-Clemson, Nebraska-Missouri.)
5:02 p.m, Pacific time, Sunday afternoon: here's a postscript after this experiment with a running diary of a whole day of college football:
One diary on one day will not be enough to tell you all you need to know about the thought process of a sports journalist. However, it can (and should) provide important insights into the deeper mechanics of this job. One aspect of college football writing that should stand out for you, as readers of this column (and CFN in general), is that the columnist watches tons of games and countless snaps over the course of twelve to thirteen frenzied hours. Thousands of individual insights will be made, and hundreds of mental notes will be jotted down on paper or registered in the brain. What does this mean? It means that a national college football columnist is way too busy on Saturday to make judgments that reflect a rooting interest or an entrenched bias. Any sports fan remains a fan, even when becoming a sportswriter. You don't write about sports if you don't love sports. With that said, though, the business of writing something honest, lucid and informative is too demanding for me or any of my colleagues to get caught up in petty politics or teenage passions. As people who must watch sports in a professional manner, sportswriters quickly learn to see games through the prism of how they'll write their story. The very nature of the sports journalism business--at least on a national level, divorced from local markets, local teams, and intimate communal rooting interests--makes it virtually impossible for a national columnist to nakedly display juvenile tendencies or excessive (read: institutional) biases. And if a national columnist does reveal these manifest flaws? He (she) will be out of a job, pronto.
When I'm wearing out my remote, and when my neck is getting sore from all the rotations my head is doing to follow three monitors as closely as possible, the plays are coming at me fast and furious. When I switch to another game, I have to immediate process the new scenario in the new game on the new channel I've just turned to. The job of national college football writing--for those of us who watch a bunch of screens and are not assigned to cover individual games--involves making judgment after judgment on play after play over the course of at least 12 hours on Saturdays. One play blurs into another, and when you accumulate a few years in this line of work, there will be many times when--as fun as this gig is--sportswriting can be a hard, long slog. Love of the sport brings a sportswriter into the arena, but a love of journalism and the craft of sportswriting are what enable the journalist to stay in the arena over the long run. Having a rooting interest connects us to sports in our early years, but when you become an adult, the desire to produce good work--work that makes you sleep well at night, safe in the knowledge that you're doing something meaningful, and doing it well--becomes the driving force in your life. When I sit behind a keyboard or when I watch a stack of games, I want to write Instant Analysis pieces that are fair. I want to write reports that are worthy of the games I cover. As you can tell from this week's Instant Analysis pieces, I save my best writing for the biggest and most memorable games; the blowouts receive clean, but very brief, treatment. For example, it would have been inappropriate for me to have written too much about a Nebraska-Missouri game that, due to the USC and LSU dramas, I didn't get to see. The fluctuations, twists and turns of a football Saturday take the national college football writer in different and unexpected directions. Following the flow of urgent action--what's significant, what's close, what's late--is the top demand for the national college football journalist.
When you realize how long this diary was (despite the brief and very clipped nature of almost all of the individual entries), it should dawn on you how much professionalism a national football writer must devote to the craft on a weekly basis. Just imagine doing a running diary every Saturday--wait a minute, we DO compile these diaries every Saturday! It's just that we leave a lot of material on the cutting room floor or stuck in the notebook. We don't publish every single thought, just the particularly salient ones, and we polish our insights from the time we go to bed early Sunday morning to the time we crank out our feature columns on Sunday night or Monday morning. Conducting a full (or at least substantial) survey of the larger college football landscape is an arduous enough task for one weekend; when you do it from Labor Day weekend through early December, and then on New Year's Day, there's just too much responsibility involved for a writer to indulge his (her) childhood memories, school allegiances, or regionally-influenced perspectives. And even if we did, well, we wouldn't have any credibility in this business to begin with. As this week's column comes to a close, consider this: other than God, the last person this sportswriter wants to disappoint is Grantland Rice, not the Arizona State Sun Devil fans I grew up with in Phoenix, or the Washington Husky fans who live near me in Seattle. Paradoxically, though, that's precisely why those fans--and all college football fans throughout America--should be able to trust me, my CFN colleagues, and my fellow college football writers.
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Week Seven: October 15, 2007
With the season at its midway point, the pressure of gameday coaching is beginning to bring out the best and worst in America's sideline sultans of Saturday. A season short on tight games and wrenching strategic decisions finally witnessed a day when late-game choices were hard to make.
The lead story in the coaching world from this past Saturday should not rate as a surprise: Jeff Tedford once again looked very small in a big-time situation.
Let's be clear at the outset: Tedford is a very good coach, perhaps the king of the B-plus coaches in the United States. Tedford is excellent at being good--what he's done in Berkeley is no small feat. Almost every athletic director would give a hefty sum to employ Tedford as his new football coach. Let's not think, then, that this is a hit piece directed toward a person with considerable integrity and humility. After all, it was Tedford who graciously refused to engage in public relations (or scoreboard) politicking for the 2005 Rose Bowl berth that eventually went to Texas. If you want to find a good human being in the coaching profession, Tedford would be on the list.
With that "let's-not-have-a-Mike Gundy-Jenni Carlson coach-columnist war" preamble out of the way, let's frame this brief discussion in simple and clear terms: Tedford's overall coaching ability is not on trial here; we're only trying to determine whether Tedford deserves elite status as a college head coach. One could say, in fact, that a lot of criticisms aired by columnists toward coaches, especially on subjects such as play calling and strategy, are not intended to suggest that the coach is "bad," but that the coach is simply not performing at the level needed for his program to attain its proper place in the college football pecking order. That's food for very extended thought, but we'll leave that subject for fuller treatment at a later date. For today, the MMQ knows this much: Tedford is developing the kind of reputation that no truly elite coach can acquire.
The biggest problem with California's loss to Oregon State, capped by the final-sequence debacle involving redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Riley inside the Beaver red zone, was not that it happened in the first place. No, the truly worrisome element of the un-Bear-able upset is that it's part of a pattern in Berkeley. Whenever Cal faces a game that draws national attention and, with it, intense scrutiny about the Bears' ability to reach the proverbial "next level" as a program, Jeff Tedford almost invariably presides over some kind of train wreck. Back in 2004, the Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech represented a moment when Cal needed to take care of business on national television. The Bear players said the right things, but their level of play suggested otherwise. The embarrassing blowout loss took some starch out of a program that has the irritating habit of playing well until it really matters.
In 2006, Tedford brought his team into November with Pac-10 and Rose Bowl prizes well within reach. But as soon as the business end of the 2006 season came across the calendar, the Berkeley boys lost crucial games with no help from their head coach. Tedford's decision to kick a field goal inside the Arizona 10 midway through the fourth quarter led to a four-point defeat. Later that November, Tedford watched Pete Carroll take him apart in terms of both adjustments and situational strategy, as USC wrested the conference crown from Cal in a Coliseum collision that could have gone the other way if the coaching matchup had turned out differently. Tedford's tenure in Berkeley has been marked by two characteristics: an ability to lead his team out of the gate strong, and an even more noticeable ability to immediately wilt in the searing spotlight once the stakes are substantially elevated.
It's this sustained pattern of losing not just as a highly-ranked favorite, but losing immediately after the pressure falls on the Golden Bears, that makes Tedford's reputation suffer so severely. It's also why Tedford deserves the blame for the fiasco involving Nate Longshore's backup on Saturday against Oregon State. (If Longshore had committed such a blunder, it would have been a different story--coaches should be evaluated differently, based on the experience levels possessed by their players.) It was interesting to hear Tedford say in the postgame presser that Kevin Riley's mistake didn't cost his team the game. Tedford reasoned that one play doesn't decide a game. While that statement might be true enough, it nevertheless remains that Tedford could have prevented that play from happening... and enabled his team to get to overtime.
Here's what hasn't been said (but should have been) by TV talking heads about the Kevin Riley brain cramp: late-game situations such as that one are not just a matter of telling the quarterback to throw the ball away. When you're trying for a late touchdown but can still tie with a field goal in the final seconds of regulation, a huge key is for the coach to give his quarterback--especially if it's a young signal caller such as Kevin Riley--a simple play. The truly unfathomable element of Cal's colossal blunder against Oregon State was that Riley evidently lacked a play in which security was not built into the equation. If Riley really did have a play which allowed him to throw the ball away if his first option was covered, it's hard to imagine the Bears not getting their field goal. One can debate exactly what was (or wasn't) said on the Cal sideline, but the larger lesson is surely this: as a coach, you don't just tell your player to throw the ball away in a given situation; you provide a play (or scheme or package) that makes a quick release an inherent part of the play itself. What makes the whole episode that much worse for Tedford is that DeSean Jackson's cramping injury gave Cal's coach extended minutes with Riley on the sideline; it's not as though Cal's lack of timeouts prevented Tedford from being able to coach up his young quarterback. Tedford had time, and the "Stupidity at Strawberry Canyon" still ensued. That's just unacceptable for any coach who wants to become an elite member of this select fraternity.
On to other strategic case studies from a delicious Saturday...
The last time Steve Spurrier and Butch Davis coached against each other in college, Miami pulled away in the fourth quarter to beat Florida in the 2001 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. On Saturday in Chapel Hill, the two men--back on NCAA sidelines and done with the merciless (and, frankly, unappealing) pros--went at it again. Their "Clash of the Carolinas" provided one enough situational dilemmas to last a full season.
Where to begin in discussing the many questionable decisions made by both Spurrier and Davis on Saturday? Let's start with Davis.
What in the world was the former Miami master thinking when he tried for two points in a 21-9 game in the fourth quarter against Spurrier's Gamecocks? Here's the simple point-spread math that should have been so easy for Davis to understand: the difference between 12 and 11 points is substantial. In a 12-point game, the field goal is removed from the equation. In an 11-point game, the field goal is in play. If a game is in the fourth quarter, a 13-point deficit always demands a two-point try. A 12-point lead demands a kick. Duh!
But Davis wasn't done sabotaging his team's chances of making a comeback. Again, the head (Tar) Heel couldn't put two and two together when it came to scoreboard arithmetic, with even more crippling results.
With Carolina down 12 (not 11) because of his strategic mistake, Davis initially opted to kick a field goal with his team deep in South Carolina territory near the six-minute mark of regulation. Someone on the UNC sideline must have informed Davis of the point spread, because a timeout was called just before the ball was snapped. However, as Tar Heel partisans would soon find out, this final timeout robbed the home team of 35-40 precious seconds that really could have come in handy at the end of the ballgame. Mere indecision proved to be fatal, even though the proper choice was ultimately made on that fourth-down play (which, cruelly, still failed, leaving the Heels down 12, anyway).
What's even more galling for North Carolina fans is that once UNC did score a touchdown to get the lead from 12 to just six points, Davis still couldn't make the right move. Knowing that he'd have to try an onside kick (given the lack of timeouts caused by the blunder mentioned above), Davis should have known that South Carolina--if it recovered the onside kick--would start around the UNC 40 and therefore have a chance to kick a field goal with Ryan Succop. In order to keep his team in the ballgame, Davis should have kicked the PAT to keep his team down by five, and therefore able to stay in the game if USC kicked a field goal. By going for the two-point conversion, Davis left his team vulnerable to instant defeat with a field goal (given the nine-point margin it could have created.) Just as Davis needs to realize the difference between a 12-point spread and an 11-point spread, he also needs to realize the difference between a 4-point margin and a 3-point margin. It's of considerable strategic value to reduce a deficit to a field goal, but there's little point in reducing a deficit from six to four... especially when a five-point margin keeps a team in the game when the opposition tacks on a field goal. Butch, you go for two when down five, not six; when down 13, not 12. Got it?
Now, we turn to Spurrier, who made good decisions but bad play calls.
Given the disappearance of his offense, especially his offensive line, combined with North Carolina's lack of timeouts, it was smart and disciplined for Spurrier to swallow his medicine and avoid a preference for the forward pass in the final six minutes of Saturday's game against the Tar Heels. In that respect, Spurrier showed wisdom. The Head Ball Coach (note to other sportswriters and fans: it's the Head Ball Coach, not the OL' Ball Coach--can we get that straight?) also made a good decision by electing to have Succop, his trusted kicker, go for a game-sealing field goal with 48 seconds left and USC, up six, facing fourth and 3 at the UNC 31. Spurrier's fundamental decisions showed why the man has attained an elevated place in the pantheon of SEC coaches.
However, for all of Spurrier's sound instincts, there was a noticeable chink in the Visored One's armor: even if you make good decisions, you need to back up those moves with good play calls, and it was here that Spurrier fell short.
It's true enough that Chris Smelley is not as experienced as Blake Mitchell (though recent games would suggest that Smelley is the slightly better quarterback on an overall level... more on this in a bit), but one must remember that USC had no business throwing the the ball to begin with in the final minutes against UNC. The problem with USC's play selection in the late stages of the North Carolina game was that the runs were vanilla runs. In the process of trying to conserve a lead, Spurrier seemed unwilling to be aggressive within a conservative framework (which is quite possible to do). One of Spurrier's "aggressively conservative" plays from his Florida days was the "X quick," a handoff to a receiver in motion who would run hard at the time of the snap to gain momentum in the attempt to turn the corner. The play does risk the receiver going out of bounds, but a simple instruction from Spurrier should have prevented a mishap. All in all, some misdirection or change-of-pace runs were worth trying against North Carolina's pursuit-based defense. Spurrier--while smart to run the ball exclusively--was nevertheless too timid within his run-only framework, and it was that lack of imagination that truly cost him on Saturday. With better play selection, the Gamecocks wouldn't have had to sweat out two Hail Marys in a game they once led by 18 points.
In the above paragraph, there was a parenthetical reference to Chris Smelley in comparison to Blake Mitchell. This leads to an interesting debate concerning the way in which Spurrier should handle his quarterbacks in the coming weeks. It's this columnist's opinion that while Smelley has greater overall aptitude, Mitchell--by virtue of his experience--is a better man in road environments. (After all, Mitchell won at Georgia by displaying good ball security.) It therefore follows that when the Gamecocks enter enemy lairs in Knoxville and Fayetteville, Mitchell should start, if only for a series or even just the first snap. Spurrier might want to devote considerable thought to the possibility of using his play-by-play QB rotation with Smelley and Mitchell, as he did with Doug Johnson and Noah Brindise against Florida State in 1997 as head coach at Florida.
Next in the crosshairs is the man who replaced Spurrier at Florida: Ron Zook. Just one week after experiencing a truly transcendent moment as a collegiate head coach, Zook looked like a rookie against Iowa in a display that was painful to watch.
With Illinois leading the Hawkeyes, 6-3, late in the third quarter, Zook's defense stopped Iowa at the Illini 15 to force 4th and a long 2. In a three-point game, there seemed to be little chance that Kirk Ferentz would dare to go for the first down and pass up a short field goal that would have tied the game. When an illegal formation penalty was called on Iowa, everyone in the ballpark thought that the penalty would be declined and that the Illini would not be trailing heading into the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately for Illinois, though, there were two people in Kinnick Stadium who didn't think the penalty should be declined: ESPN2 broadcaster Ray Bentley, and--more importantly--Zook himself. One 3rd and 7 touchdown strike later, Iowa had the winning points in a game that ended 10-6 in favor of the Hawkeyes.
What should determine a coach's decision on the matter of accepting or declining penalties involving third and fourth downs? It's not terrifically complicated: if a team must get a touchdown and a penalty puts that touchdown in grave jeopardy, you take a third-down penalty at the expense of (temporarily) passing up a fourth down scenario. Is that too hard to comprehend? The Illinois-Iowa scenario met neither of the two criteria, since a field goal offered significant value for the Hawkeyes and the touchdown was not placed in grave jeopardy by the penalty.
What's the classic scenario in which it's wise to take a penalty and deny a fourth down in the process? If you know your football strategy, you already have the situation in mind. (Waiting... waiting... waiting... okay, if you don't have it by now, you need to attend some football strategy seminars in the offseason to build up your knowledge base...) If you're leading by four to seven points in the final minute of regulation and your opponent, a run-based team, has a 4th and goal on or inside the 1, you take a five-yard penalty even if it forces third down. On a larger level, you take five-yard penalties to replay third down if they prevent "4th and very short" situations for the opposition. You generally don't take penalties if the fourth-down yardage is anything more than a long one yard. In Zook's case, the difference was between "3rd and a long 7" and "4th and a long 2." That just doesn't justify accepting a penalty, and Iowa made the Zooker pay.
And as we close, just remember: don't chip kick a kickoff the way Houston Nutt did against Auburn, and don't blame Les Miles for doing against Kentucky what he did against Florida: trusting his running backs and his offensive line. Just tip the cap to Kentucky for gutting out an amazing win. See you next week.
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Week Eight: October 22, 2007
There's one and only one set of issues to talk about in this week's column: Les Miles. Auburn. The final seconds. And various pundits who mouth mindless talking points.
Let's just put the cards on the table here: no, I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I dare say that on some occasions, I really do feel that I can comment on football games much more effectively than the people wearing suits and ties who are paid a great deal to evaluate the dramas of an October Saturday. This comment--which, to the uninformed observer, would seem to be incredibly arrogant and inappropriate--needs a brief explanation before we dive into the LSU-Auburn game and its frantic, frenzied finish.
When talking about college football in a larger overall sense, this writer is extremely ignorant, unaware and underexposed on a lot of levels. The people who sit or stand in front of cameras before millions of people do deserve added compensation in exchange for being public faces who have to deliver vocal commentary in confined stretches of time. Moreover, these TV pundits (along with a number of high-profile writers for high-end print publications) are almost always former coaches and players who know the ins and outs of college football in ways I will never fully understand. When talking about complex internal matters of game planning, film study, strength training programs, recruiting strategies, progressions of reads, and like details, I couldn't provide many coherent or worthwhile thoughts. Most of the people who provide game analysis on television are people who understand the deeper mechanics of the business of college football, and particularly college football coaching. I must admit that I don't know the sport at this "deeper" and almost subterranean level. It's important for that piece of self-disclosure to be broadcast to CFN's national readership.
With that having been acknowledged, then, I have a question for these TV pundits and analysts, along with the high-profile writers for the "big box" websites and papers: if you do indeed possess structural and institutional knowledge that I lack, how come this knowledge doesn't come across when evaluating or analyzing a game? Serious college football fans deserve a legitimate answer to this question.
This is why newspaper and Internet writers--not just fans--can become particularly resentful, grouchy and bitter in our worst moments: people who know a ton about football, and who have probably forgotten more about the sport than many of us "commoners" will ever know, rarely manage to provide on-camera (or in-print) analysis of football games that respects the intelligence of the average viewer or reader. Moreover, this same analysis that talks down to fans is also unworthy of the people providing the analysis themselves. The aftermath of the Auburn-LSU game offered a perfect case in point. The big story of that game-ending sequence--from an analytical standpoint--wasn't just that Les Miles was anything but gutsy; the other big story was how mainstream media commentators--broadcast and print alike--mysteriously provided no valuable insights whatsoever.
ESPN (hey, the Worldwide Leader broadcasts almost every college football game to begin with, so the sports goliath will almost always be the first and foremost target for criticism in the college football world) was painful to watch and equally painful to read in the hours following the conclusion of the Auburn-LSU game. Mark May--who knows a lot more about football than I do--called Les Miles "gutsy" on the air. ESPN.com writer Chris Low--who might have been ambushed by his editors, it must be acknowledged--had a game story with the headline, "Gutsy call, perfect pass get LSU past pesky Auburn." The link to Low's story on the ESPN.com front page also mentioned the words "gutsy call."
This columnist has his own two words in response to the words "gutsy call," and those words are: COME... ON!
Can mainstream media outlets possibly provide more inane and ridiculously dumb "analysis" of a game that demanded mature and nuanced commentary? My personal religious faith demands that I be forgiving and truly prayerful toward each and every human being who walks the earth along with me, but that doesn't mean I have to stand for horrible work that fails to respect my intelligence. (True story: just before writing this column, I walked out of the Sunday homily at Mass--it was that bad. Life's too short for noble pursuits and worthy endeavors to turn into torture chambers. Dignity is sometimes found in walking away from the absurd, on the few moments when that's actually possible in this dysfunctional world. Whoops... time to end this little digression before certain boundaries are crossed.)
From someone who knows little about college football outside of the games themselves, but who is actually quite competent at assessing the games themselves, here's a responsible way of viewing Les Miles' performance in the final minute of the Auburn game, since nobody at ESPN has provided anything of value to this point in time.
First and foremost, Miles--gutsy against Florida and nobly stubborn against Kentucky--was anything but gutsy in this situation. There's absolutely nothing about the LSU coach's actions that would qualify as gutsy. Let the Monday Morning Quarterback count the ways...
First of all, Miles should have tried to get a touchdown in the first place. It's always better to get a touchdown than to have to sweat out a field goal, especially when that kicker is the inconsistent Colt David. Miles should have been firing away at the end zone--or at least inside the 10 to set up a chip shot field goal--when the game clock had at least 30 to 40 seconds still left in the fourth quarter. The fact that Miles ultimately tried for the end zone means he did merely what should have been expected of any coach. Hence, his actions weren't gutsy at all. Moreover, since Miles took only one shot at the end zone instead of two or three, he was actually insufficiently bold in this situation.
Secondly, if Miles was truly dedicated to pursuing a touchdown and avoiding a field goal, he would have--in consultation with offensive coordinator Gary Crowton--put the ball in the hands of his speedsters (Trindon Holliday) so that each offensive play inside the Auburn 30 could have gone out of bounds and stopped the clock. When you trail in a game, it's always in your best interest to lengthen and extend the game, at least until you find yourself in a fully advantageous position (such as being inside the Auburn 10 with the ball neatly centered for a potential field goal that would have been easy to make). When LSU found itself with 1st and 10 at the Auburn 25 in the final minute, the Bayou Bengals had not attained that fully advantageous position. Hence, they needed to extend the game. They didn't. Nothing gutsy about that, to be sure. Only stupidity reigned on the same LSU sideline that, in 2005, butchered what seemed like ten trillion late-game situations, the most prominent ones being against Tennessee on that Monday night game delayed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Third, and most importantly, the Les Miles approach to the end of the Auburn game was anything but gutsy because Miles was able to manipulate the clock however he wanted to. This subtle reality--underappreciated and overlooked to extreme degrees by mainstream media pundits--provides the biggest and most irrefutable reasons why Miles' coaching performance in this instance was so subpar.
One of the big questions that annually emerges in the world of late-game clock management is, "When do you kick a field goal and not try for a touchdown in the final seconds of a half?" The book on this issue says that when you're very close to the goal line--roughly no more than 10 yards away--you can start a play with six seconds left, throw a very quick pass into the end zone, and still have one tick left on the clock. In the first half of a game, then, it's easy to use six seconds as the smallest amount of time remaining when you can still try for a touchdown. With five seconds left, you always kick. With seven or more seconds left, you always go for the touchdown. Six seconds is the dividing line. But this gives way to a different discussion when the second half is concerned.
Given the finality of a late-game situation, coaches should use an extra bit of caution when trying to get a touchdown at the end of a game in which a field goal can tie or win. If six-seconds is the minimum first-half standard for pass attempts at or inside the 10, coaches must then use seven seconds as the second-half standard. But even this set of statements doesn't quite frame the issue in its complete context. There are other details to consider.
One of the tension points about this issue (when to go for a touchdown, and when to bite the bullet and kick a field goal at the end of a half) is that in the really difficult cases, teams lack timeouts and are necessarily operating on the fly. The inability to confer on the sidelines and select a specific play (while also coaching up the quarterback and the other players in the offensive huddle) is a big disadvantage for coaches who want to make an extra attempt to get a touchdown. This Auburn-LSU situation reflected poorly on Les Miles because he had a timeout during this whole situation, yet chose to keep that timeout in his pocket. This is the biggest dimension of the Auburn-LSU finish that has not been discussed at all by mainstream media commentators.
Instead of saying that Miles made a "gutsy call," responsible TV and print analysts should have asked why Miles--in complete control of the clock--didn't choose to use his one remaining timeout at an appropriate moment. If seven seconds from the 10-yard line is the accepted industry-wide benchmark for attempting an extra touchdown pass, then Miles played with fire. The LSU coach could have stopped the clock any time he wanted, given the timeout at his disposal. Yet, he presided over a situation in which Matt Flynn received the center snap with eight seconds left on a play that started at the Auburn 22. If seven seconds from the 10 is the accepted second-half standard, eight seconds from the 22 is cutting things mighty close. This isn't guts. It's astonishing neglect and breathtaking stupidity.
If Miles wanted to try for a touchdown, we've already established that he should have tried to grab the brass ring much earlier--on first and second downs, not just on 3rd and 7. But if Miles wanted to achieve his strategic goal of making one attempt at the end zone and (if it failed) leaving just enough time on the clock for a field goal, he should have called his one timeout with, oh, 11 to 12 seconds left. Better yet, Miles--since he allowed 20-25 seconds of game clock to drain away between the second-down play and the third-down play--should have simply called Matt Flynn to the sideline at the 30-second mark of regulation and quickly told him to have the ball snapped with 10-12 seconds on the clock. (This last statement only amplifies and magnifies the need for LSU's previous plays to have flowed to the boundary, so that the game clock could have been stopped and the LSU braintrust could have regrouped.)
As a postscript to all this, just consider another simple reality to underscore just how "not gutsy" Les Miles was: instead of ensuring that he was in chip-shot field goal range before attempting a touchdown pass, Les Miles was so conservative inside the Auburn 30 that, had Flynn's pass not scored a touchdown, he would have been staring down the barrel of a 39- or 40-yard field goal, which--for Colt David in 2007--has been a very iffy proposition. With over 30 seconds left in the game and LSU inside the Auburn 25, Miles had all the time in the world to ensure that any attempted field goal would be a chip shot. Instead, LSU's combination of play selection and time management put the Bayou Bengals in a situation where a difficult pass play was the only thing that kept them from sweating out a medium-range field goal from an unsteady kicker who reliably nailed only those field goals that were under 30 yards long.
If that's being gutsy, I slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night... If other people are going to make a lot more money than I do, I wish they'd actually earn their salaries when commenting on situations such as the end of the Auburn-LSU contest.
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Week Nine: October 29, 2007
With Les Miles not available to make life more interesting, we'll look at the college football world in this week's column. This week, another SEC West coach stole the spotlight.
It's hard to remember a game in which a quarterback did so much for his team while doing so little on the stat sheet. Dennis Dixon of Oregon played the most patient game of his career on Saturday against USC. Given that Dixon was a walking turnover factory in 2006, coach Mike Bellotti and new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly deserve a great deal of credit for straightening out their gifted signal caller. It was a rare but genuine treat to see Dixon show incredible restraint on play after play against a hard-charging USC defense that spilled its guts on the Autzen Stadium turf. The 2006 Dixon would have lost this game with a big blunder; the 2007 Dixon, who has been flawless aside of a nervous fourth quarter against Cal, remained steady until the final gun. The poise of Oregon's quarterback offered yet another example of how maturity, not talent, is the real gateway to success in big-time college football.
After getting more of a look at Kansas and Connecticut on Saturday, it's clear that what the Jayhawks and Huskies lack in talent is compensated for by an abundance of effort. These two substantial surprises have put together remarkable seasons because they don't take plays off. Kansas could have become discouraged after missing out on numerous first-half scoring opportunities at Texas A&M; Connecticut could have sagged when South Florida gained a 2nd and goal at the 1 in the final minutes of regulation. Both teams, though, just kept coming, and by failing to relent, they defeated programs that have played in more big games over the past few seasons. True grit--100 percent pure and unfiltered--is the fuel that's powering two basketball schools to gridiron glories.
Don't be too irritated with the coaching staffs of Virginia and UCLA after Saturday's action. The Cavaliers and Bruins lost as much to the law of averages as they succumbed to determined opponents. Instead of criticizing Al Groh and Karl Dorrell, give credit to Tom O'Brien and Bill Doba, the coaches who defeated them in Raleigh and Pullman, respectively.
Speaking of coaches, Philip Fulmer has been getting the same treatment in Tennessee that Lloyd Carr received at Michigan after the Appy State and Oregon games. Hopefully, the win over South Carolina--as skaky as it turned out to be--will nevertheless take some heat off the Big Orange boss in an era where national championship coaches just aren't treated as well as they used to be.
How can Louisville not put a big whoopin' on Pittsburgh at home? It's just about November, and while the Cardinals are no longer a factor in the Big East, they still haven't played like a really good team in even one game since their upset loss to Syracuse. This is just one of many reasons why the Big East has had a substandard season... and why the league isn't being held to a double standard in national conversations. There were certain baseline expectations of what would happen in the conference this year, and one of them was that Louisville, the defending champion, would be a half-decent team. When your big dogs don't hunt, however, your conference doesn't exactly grow in stature. When your league's PR wing trots out premature and almost desperate advertisements in early September, that only makes things worse.
Something has to give when Navy plays Notre Dame this Saturday, with history in the South Bend air: either Navy will finally get some stops, or Charlie Weis' offense might actually score. The resistible force meets the moveable object.
The sound of a program quietly maintaining its place in the college football world with less proven talent: Houston went to 4-1 in Conference USA by winning at UTEP late Saturday night. Art Briles knows how to coach offense, as shown by the simple fact that he's winning without Kevin Kolb. A two-QB rotation of Case Keenum and Blake Joseph is continuing to conjure conquests for the Cougars. Briles is one of the best FBS coaches you know very little about.
The sound of a program quietly but surely finding its footing after a period of darkness, part one: Colorado stands at 5-4 after a huge road win at Texas Tech.
The sound of a program quietly but surely finding its footing after a period of darkness, part two: Vanderbilt didn't choke against Miami of Ohio, one week after the huge win against South Carolina. One more win in the season's final four games, and Bobby Johnson's Commodores will have a non-losing season. That hasn't happened in Nashville in a quarter century.
The sound of a program quietly but surely finding its footing after a period of darkness, part three: We save the best in this three-part series for last--Mississippi State. Yes, Sylvester Croom is beginning to get the job done in Starkville. Most of America surely couldn't believe that Kentucky could be thumped at home after playing a pair of thrillers against LSU and Florida, but the real story of that ambush in Lexington is that the Bulldogs stand at 5-4 overall, with quality wins at Kentucky and Auburn along the way. Seeing Sly Croom succeed is immensely important for the SEC, African-American coaches, and all of college football. If a coach of color can win in the Deep South, countless barriers--both psychological and cultural, overt and subtle, fluid and entrenched--will be reshaped if not broken down entirely. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has made no secret about his desire to see Croom lift Mississippi State to a respectable place in the college football pecking order. Now that the Bulldogs seem to have a balanced, well-integrated offense led by an alert, instinctive quarterback in Wesley Carroll, they look the part of a very competitive team. They're not about to win the SEC West, but it's definitely fair to say that MSU's September win in Auburn is less of a fluke than anyone thought at the time. Some college football games are "big" not because they affect the national title race, but because they significantly improve the overall health of a sport in its larger relationship to culture and society. By this standard, Mississippi State's win over Kentucky was the biggest college football game played over the past weekend.
This week's reflection questions for the open-minded and discerning fan...
When is a coaching staff bad, and when do players simply make mistakes?
When does the reality of an onside kick (not) matter when analyzing a football game?
Should the Heisman Trophy be awarded to a player whose team has at least three losses?
When do you label a player as an underachiever, and when do you say "it's just a learning process"?
When do you label a player as an underachiever, and when do you say, "stuff just happens"?
Do you ever refer to a journalist's performance the same way you refer to the performance of a player or coach?
If a game is decided by mistakes instead of big plays, do you celebrate the winning team or focus on the losing team?
How insulted do you feel when your team's win is viewed as "lucky"?
How much of a role does luck play in affecting whole football games and seasons?
What do you even define as luck?
When does a previously unheralded team deserve to be treated as an elite team?
When does that same team deserve to then be downgraded once it does stub its toe?
What's the difference between a pundit showing "an arrogant, biased lack of respect" to a team, and a pundit showing "prudent attitudinal caution" to that same team?
Les Miles or Nick Saban? Yeah, I can't wait, either.
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Week Ten: November 5, 2007
Les Miles, as all of Western civilization knows, did a horrible job against Auburn a few weeks ago. To be fair to the LSU coach, however, we need to point out that just about every major college football coach gets pretty stupid when the issue of late-game field goals is concerned. This past weekend provided ample proof of that reality.
Coaches have always been known to be different creatures. They're very nocturnal. They're quite obsessed with preparation. They work insane hours. They display an incredible amount of dedication and spill an ungodly amount of sweat in service to their profession and the kids they lead. In many ways, coaches do remarkable things that require a unique amount of intestinal fortitude in the spotlight provided by big-time college football.
So why is it, then, that when late-game field goals become the strategic object of a coach's focus, these sultans of the sidelines decide to chuck their brains out the window? There's evidently nothing like a placekick to turn a coach's normally manageable mind into instant oatmeal. College football coaches become bowls of pigskin porridge whenever they face a field goal in the final minutes of a nailbiter. Let's go to the files from the past weekend, shall we?
Jim Grobe of Wake Forest is, quite simply, one of the best coaches in America. He does more with less than just about any of his colleagues in the coaching profession. The man is very good at what he does. But on Saturday, with his team smelling victory at Virginia in a key ACC clash, Grobe plainly lost his marbles. Period.
Here was the scene in Charlottesville: after converting a pair of fourth downs, the visiting Demon Deacons--down by a point--gained a first down just inside the Cavalier 35 with a little over half a minute remaining. The Deacs were doing exactly what any normal team should be doing in the final minute of a game in which it trails: throw the ball, get out of bounds, move the sticks, lengthen the game. Wash, rinse, repeat cycle until you get into chip-shot field goal range. This was the mistake Les Miles made against Auburn: in a game where a field goal possessed primary importance, he failed to get into chip-shot field goal range before trying for a touchdown. In a game when a team trails by a field goal or less, you get into chip-shot field goal range before anything else. That is your first, last and only goal. End of story.
Back to Wake Forest-Virginia, then: precisely when the Deacs were on the verge of getting into chip-shot field goal range just inside the UVA 35, Jim Grobe did what all too many coaches do: he settled for the long field goal, that most mystifying of all coaching decisions. At a time when Wake Forest needed just 20 yards to make a kick easy for Sam Swank, Grobe abandoned the passing game and called a running play on first down. The clock ran and ran. On second down, another conservative running play was called. The clock ran down to the two-second mark of regulation.
There's no need in even trying to explain it: in roughly 30 seconds, Wake Forest attempted zero forward passes after moving the ball steadily downfield with the clutch throws of quarterback Riley Skinner. In roughly 30 seconds, the Deacs gained a grand total of three yards after gaining 39 yards on the first several plays of their last-ditch drive. Jim Grobe--with more than enough time for his team to get into chip-shot field goal range and breathe easy on a last-second kick, instead chose--willingly and undeniably--to settle for a 48-yard boot. Even if Sam Swank is kicking that sucker, a 48-yard boot is never a high-percentage play. As clear as the naked Virginia daylight, Jim Grobe lost a big game for his team with absolutely asinine decision making. Jim Grobe is still a great coach--you don't do what he's done at Wake Forest without being one of the sharpest tools in the shed--but on one afternoon, The Ghost Of the Long, Late Field Goal haunted Grobe and turned his cranial region into mess of mush.
The hilarious sidebar to this whole story is that, lost in the fog of Grobe's brain cramp in the face of The Ghost of the Long, Late Field Goal, Virginia coach Al Groh committed his own mammoth blunder while also supporting Grobe's decision making process.
First, one must mention the on-field blunder by Groh, a former NFL man who is doing a superb job this season after several years of underachieving ball in the shadows of Monticello: while the clock ticked down on Wake Forest in that clinically insane conclusion to Deacs-Cavs, Groh actually gave Grobe a chance to reconsider his (lack of) strategy. With 17 seconds left and Wake in no apparent rush to snap the ball, Groh called timeout for reasons that defy explanation. Again, there's just no point in even attempting to mount a defense of such a move. But of course, Grobe insisted on settling for the long field goal, anyway, and as a result of one coach's refusal to accept another coach's generosity, Virginia won yet another one-point game in a magic carpet ride of a season that is wiping away the pain of past disappointments in Charlottesville.
As bad as Groh's own miscalculation was, however, there was an even more amazing aspect to this larger drama. It emerged in the postgame press conference.
Groh, with total sincerity and a straight face, said this about Grobe's decision to bury the ball in the line and settle for the Long, Late Field Goal: "That was the right call given the history this kid had." Oh, so what would have been the wrong call, coach? Dropping back five and punting? Let's be serious: what other "call" was there to make? Settling for a 48-yard field goal is a better move than trying to set up a 35-yard field goal? Just who the heck are we kidding? See--this is how coaches' minds turn to mush when confronted by The Ghost of the Long, Late Field Goal.
To provide some perspective on this topic, it needs to be said that college football history is full of dusty, dirty roads littered with the wreckage of games blown by coaches who settled for long field goals. This columnist, a native of Phoenix, was first made aware of this disease among major college football coaches during the 1994 staging of the Arizona State-Arizona rivalry game in Tucson. While spending my very first Thanksgiving weekend away from home in my freshman year of college, I watched from Seattle as Bruce Snyder--another pretty smart coach who won a fair amount of games at Cal and ASU--decided not to use his brain in the final minutes of a game in which the Wildcats led Snyder's Sun Devils, 28-27. Arizona State was putting together a great drive, and a chip-shot field goal from Stephen Baker seemed set to give the visitors from Tempe a sweet win down in Wildcat country.
But then came my first experience of seeing what happens to a coach's mind when confronted by The Ghost of the Long, Late Field Goal.
Things were going so well for ASU on that drive that Snyder naturally ordered a complete halt to the proceedings. Successful forward passes were abruptly deemed off limits, and before you knew it, Baker--a solid kicker (sound familiar, Wake Forest fans?)--was forced to attempt a 47-yard kick under enormous pressure. A 32-yarder would have been much easier to handle, but a 47-yarder required considerabe distance in addition to accuracy (and still does). The length of a kick makes the job of a kicker that much more taxing, especially when the weight of the situation is substantial. Bruce Snyder, though, thought that was just what his team needed in order to defeat Arizona: a nice, long, pressure-packed 47-yarder. A 30-yarder? Too risky.
The kick, of course, missed. Arizona--with a lot of help from Bruce Snyder's malfunctioning brain--defeated Arizona State thanks to The Ghost of the Long, Late Field Goal. One realizes that coaches are conservative by nature, but you don't compete unless you're willing to to pursue success. Lots of bad things can happen in ballgames, but that doesn't mean you coach with a paralyzed, deer-in-the-headlights fear of an interception on every single pass play. Good coaches use prudent judgment, but they also trust their players to execute basic plays. If a forward pass is a dependable play in the first 59:30 of a ballgame, it's a dependable play in the final 30 seconds. Wake up, college football coaches, and stop being haunted by a ghost that lives far beyond Halloween.
Since we're on the subject of The Ghost of the Long, Late Field Goal, we don't need to do much else in referencing the other big coaching gaffe of the weekend. Two words: Charlie Weis
Jim Grobe should be doing cartwheels today, because Notre Dame's coach--in the midst of a precipitous descent that (let's be honest) not even the staunchest Ty Willingham defender could have forseen before this season--actually outdid the Wake Forest boss in the stupidity department.
For those who didn't watch Notre Dame's game against Navy, all because of the accurate-enough observation that Fighting Irish football is an irrelevant and freakish sideshow these days, let's fill you in.
With the game tied at 28 and just over 30 seconds left in regulation, Weis and the Irish faced 4th and 8 at the Navy 23. Now, no one will confuse Notre Dame's kicking game with Adam Vinatieri or any kicker produced by Ohio State. With that said, however, the game was tied, and a 40-yard field goal was waiting to be kicked. If the kick missed, the Irish wouldn't have lost. They merely would have gone into overtime. If you're trailing by one or two points, or if a field goal would only tie the game, perhaps an insistence on trying for a shorter field goal would make some sense. But in a tied game, you use your placekicker and call on him to do the one thing he's supposed to perform on Saturdays: kick the ball through the uprights.
For a little perspective, consider this: the kick wasn't a ridiculously long 55-yarder, the kind of field goal that required a low trajectory and therefore risked a block that could have turned into a Navy touchdown. A 40-yard field goal qualifies as a medium-long kick, well within the range of even the nation's weaker FBS placekickers. If your kicker has any reason for wearing your team's uniform, helmet and shoulder pads, it is to attempt a medium-long field goal at the end of a tied game on 4th and 8. If you pass up a field goal of 40 yards on 4th and long at the end of a tied game, you might as well not have a kicker at all. Go for broke on every fourth down and save your recruiting efforts for better skill position playmakers.
Charlie Weis, simply but shockingly, passed up the field goal. Forget the fact that the fourth down play failed miserably, enabling Navy to stay in the game and eventually prevail in triple overtime. Even if Weis' gamble worked, he already sent a damning message to his kicker, Brandon Walker: you don't count.
Some astute observers of college football will point out that Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski has prevented his own placekicker, Steve Aponavicius, from attempting many kicks of over 29 yards. The walk-on has attempted just six kicks of over 29 yards (making three), and only two kicks of over 39 yards (making one). But while Boston College has prevented its kicker from attempting more field goals, the fact remains that Aponavicius was allowed to break into the starting lineup last season. For a while, the young man delivered the goods at crunch time, including a game-winning field goal in the Eagles' bowl game against Navy. This year, however, the feel-good story of 2006 hasn't been able to maintain momentum. It's been a tough process to witness from this columnist's chair, but at the end of the day, BC has been fair in its treatment of Aponavicius. The young kicker got his chance, made the most of it for half a season, and then--upon missing a number of makeable kicks--saw his opportunities decrease. BC gave its placekicker a chance to do well, and that statement holds true by any reasonable standard.
The same cannot be said for Weis and Notre Dame in their treatment of Brandon Walker.
One cannot put the matter more plainly: since the Irish have been so bad in 2007, they haven't had to face any nailbiters this season. The white-knuckler against Navy was Notre Dame's first encounter with a very close game this year. Therefore, any remotely makeable late-game field goal should have been attempted by Weis. Notre Dame's coach owed Walker the chance to step onto the field and win a ballgame, something that hasn't been done very regularly in South Bend.
It's one thing for Weis to do a lousy job of recruiting, or fall on his face in the arena of player development, or whiff in his attempt to devise an offensive approach compatible with his team's skill set. But those three coaching sins--as noticeable as they are--pale in comparison to the ugly, distorted, and flatly delusional decision to prevent a young kicker from having the chance to hit a 40-yard boot on 4th and 8 at the end of a tied game. If the Irish only needed a yard or a few inches, sure, go for the first down. If the kick was 55 yards, sure, go for the first down. If the Irish were trailing by three and not tied, Walker still deserved a shot, but even then, a fourth-down gamble would have been understandable. In this situation, however, there's just no excuse for what Charlie Weis did. It wasn't so much a horrible in-game decision (though it certainly qualified as such) as it was a miserable way of treating a young man who busted his butt to kick field goals for your football program.
So there you have it, folks: Charlie Weis, in one astonishingly dumb move connected to a late-game field goal situation, wound up costing his team a game while simultaneously kicking (pun very much intended) a young man to the curb. You'll have to look long and hard to find decisions worse than the one made by a Notre Dame coach who is in a Gerry Faust-like death spiral.
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Week Eleven: November 12, 2007
Two-minute drills at the end of a football game are crazy by nature. It should be no surprise, then, that these examples of organized chaos produce strange brews of panic and calmness, both of which can kill a team's comeback hopes. We saw examples from this past weekend.
On Saturday afternoon in Nashville, panic prevented the Vanderbilt Commodores from scoring a tying touchdown in the dying moments of a vigorously contested battle with division rival Kentucky. With 17 seconds left and Vandy staring at a running clock due to an in-bounds completion short of the sticks, quarterback Mackenzi Adams--after looking to the sideline--spiked the ball into the turf on 3rd and 1. On the next play, an incomplete pass into the end zone slammed the Dores shut and enabled Rich Brooks' ballclub to escape with a season-sustaining victory.
Do you think this kind of scenario is rare in the world of college football? You shouldn't. The premature and unnecessary spike occurs far too often in this sport, especially when you consider that the two-minute drill is and has been such a longstanding part of essential game preparation. Derailed two-minute drills beg the simple but necessary question: "Do coaches spend time quizzing and schooling their players, in season and out of season, on the time-and-score situations when spiked balls are (and aren't) acceptable?"
You might recall that on Oct. 18, in a Thursday night game between (then-No. 2) South Florida and Rutgers, USF quarterback Matt Grothe--on his team's own two-minute drive at the end of regulation--spiked a ball into the turf when he had no business doing so. After being sacked with roughly 1:20--yes, you read that right, 1:20--left in the fourth quarter and the Bulls trailing the Scarlet Knights by three, Grothe came up to the line of scrimmage on 2nd and 22 and, with 1:11 left, spiked the ball. In the history of late-game mini-meltdowns, Grothe's ill-advised move would rate as an all-time portrayal of profound pigskin panic. But as this past Saturday's events in Music City showed us, premature spikes happen much more often than they ever should.
If Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson had done a better job, his team would have had one more chance to tie Kentucky. This doesn't mean the Commodores would have actually been able to send the game into overtime, but the point is clear enough: coaching in endgame situations must always try to maximize a team's options and increase a team's chances of succeeding. Johnson obviously reduced Vandy's margin for error with his decision to have Adams spike the ball against the Wildcats. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand why. Vanderbilt's vexing decision occurred on a drive that ended with 11 seconds left in regulation. Had Adams not spiked the ball on third down with 17 seconds left, the quarterback--by taking a little more time to run a legitimate play--would have given his team an extra shot at a tying touchdown. It's that simple. Take seven or eight seconds away from the 11 that remained on the clock, and Vandy still would have had one more chance to score a touchdown. The premature spike prematurely ended Vandy's quest to win an ever-elusive sixth game and register a non-losing season for the first time in a quarter of a century.
On the other side of the two-minute drill divide, the past weekend of action also witnessed a situation in which excessive calmness--not panic--killed a team's chances of mounting a last-second comeback.
Brian Brohm of Louisville played a gutsy and fearless game in leading the Cards to a near-upset of West Virginia in Morgantown. Brohm spilled his insides and delivered a lot of darts to help erase a 31-14 deficit against the Mountaineers, who regained a late lead on a spectacular play by their own ballsy leader, Pat White. But when trailing 38-31 in the game's final moments, Brohm's bold approach turned into excessive caution, leading another two-minute drill to slide off the rails.
Yes, one could legitimately say that the larger moral of this game-management story is to throw past the first-down marker in a two-minute drill. As was the case with Vandy on Saturday, Louisville's Thursday failure against West Virginia was also brought about by in-bounds throws short of the sticks. With that said, though, these Chinese fire drills rise and fall not just on the basis of getting first downs, but on larger decisions involving the level of urgency a team must possess in these situations.
Whereas--for example--Matt Grothe and South Florida had over a minute left to drive downfield for a tying field goal against Rutgers over three weeks ago, Brohm and Louisville--against West Virginia this past Thursday--had to get a touchdown just to tie. Moreover, the Cards' drive started at their own 1 with 1:36 left, after returner Trent Guy misjudged the kickoff and fell to the ground with the ball in his possession. At the start of that drive, Brohm had to know that the clock loomed large. If he was going to have a reasonable chance of scoring a touchdown, he needed to take his team a good 75 yards in roughly 70-80 seconds. (This would have given Louisville the ball near the WVU 25 with about 15-25 seconds left. Such a scenario would have offered the Cards the ability to have multiple chances of scoring without having to throw a Hail Mary pass. This would clearly represent a reasonable chance of success under such daunting circumstances.)
When you are playing the clock even more than an opposing team's defense--as was the case with Brohm in this situation--you have to do something that all too many college coaches and players fail to recognize: when you're in trouble late in a game, you don't have the luxury of making high-percentage decisions and plays. You have to push the envelope. Doing the safe thing is only for teams with comfortable leads and pronounced advantages.
Brohm's biggest sin on this final drive against West Virginia was not necessarily that he threw too many passes short of the sticks; no, the problem which afflicted the decorated signal caller and future NFL mainstay (health permitting) is that, once he faced a short-yardage situation, he became too calm. Brohm--facing the clock and the length of the field more than conventional down-and-distance considerations belonging to ordinary (read: "non-endgame") football--placed more value on gaining a sure three yards than on trying for 25 at the risk of an interception.
Here were the decisions that buried Brohm on his disastrous last-ditch drive against West Virginia:
On 2nd and 5 at his own 16 with roughly 45 seconds left, Brohm threw for just nine yards to running back George Stripling.
On 2nd and 2 at his own 33 with 31 seconds left (and after a timeout, no less), Brohm dumped off a short flip to Stripling. On the following 3rd and 2? Dump-off to Stripling for eight yards. Brohm made sure he got first downs, all right, but at the cost of the larger goal: getting a touchdown. When Louisville moved the sticks to get to its own 41, fewer than 20 seconds remained on the game clock. Safe to say, the drive's only chance was Hail Mary Land, damning proof that the two-minute drill had failed to achieve reasonable objectives.
Louisville calmly caved in. Vandy folded in the face of fear. But at the end of the day, both teams and their respective quarterbacks encountered the same fate after displaying different emotions on two-minute drills.
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Week Twelve: November 19, 2007
Nevada head coach Chris Ault is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. On a dramatic night in Reno this past weekend, fame turned to shame for a man credited with being one of college football's more original thinkers.
There's a lot to be said for fresh, outside-the-box strategizing. On many occasions, the best coaches stay ahead of the curve and resist the powerful temptation to cling to conventional wisdom. Courage is often found in having the willingness to chuck the textbook out the window and trust one's own instincts. Perhaps this is what Ault was thinking in the final minutes of Friday night's nailbiter against unbeaten Hawaii.
The evidence, however, suggests that the leader of the (Wolf) Pack simply committed a few astoundingly bad errors in judgment.
If you weren't staying up after 2:30 a.m. in the East to follow this game to its conclusion, here's what happened in the final minute of regulation, which was significantly Ault-ered by some unbelievably shortsighted decisions from the Nevada icon. With 51 seconds left--and just two plays after Hawaii used a very premature ball spike, mentioned in the previous week's Monday Morning Quarterback--the Warriors' third-down play ended, setting up a field goal attempt on 4th and 5. Since Nevada had two timeouts left, it was painfully obvious that Ault should have called timeout to stop the clock right then and there. Even with a made field goal, Hawaii would have had to sweat out a Wolf Pack drive that would have had an entirely reasonable chance of getting into field goal range. But for some (very) odd reason, Ault kept the timeout in his pocket until he used it with 15 seconds left to ice Warrior placekicker Daniel Kelly. When Kelly's kick split the uprights with 11 seconds left, Nevada had virtually no chance of winning. Had Ault used his timeout with 51 seconds left, however, the outcome easily could have been different.
It's worth noting that after the made field goal with 11 seconds left, the Wolf Pack returned the ensuing kickoff to their own 37 with five ticks left on the clock. With roughly 45 seconds left instead of only five, Nevada would have had 40 more seconds in which to operate. A mere 30 yards, in those extra 40 seconds, would have brought the Pack within long field goal range. It's not an exaggeration to say that Ault severely reduced his team's chances of winning. A coach's decisions did just as much to affect the outcome of a game as did the gutsy performances turned in by Kelly, Hawaii's ice-veins kicker; Tyler Graunke, the Warriors' gallant backup quarterback (Tyler Graunke); and a resourceful collection of receivers led by Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullen.
As a postscript to Ault's nightmarish evening, the Nevada coach--a few minutes before his endgame blunders--called his first timeout 35-40 seconds earlier than he needed to. With Hawaii out of timeouts and the 25-second play clock not yet in motion, the Wolf Pack--in possession of the ball and trying to run out the clock--hastily called timeout with 3:08 left when, in fact, they could have waited until roughly the 2:30 mark before having to run another play. Ault donated nearly 40 extra seconds to Hawaii and, moreover, was unwilling to go for a first down on 4th and 4 at the Warrior 35 with approximately 2:25 left in the game. Instead of trusting his offense to finish off Hawaii, Ault allowed the game to be decided by the matchup that favored Hawaii (even with Colt Brennan watching from the sidelines): the Warriors' offense--and particularly their receivers--against Nevada's slow and generally inadequate secondary. If you ever needed a reminder about the primacy, weight and centrality of a coach's late-stage game management decisions, Friday's Hawaii-Nevada white-knuckler fit the bill perfectly.
The other big strategic move of the weekend revealed why Ole Miss football--once a winner under David Cutcliffe (remember him?) is not about to follow Mississippi State out of the SEC West cellar.
CBS analyst Gary Danielson appropriately skewered Ed Orgeron after the Rebels' coach yanked quarterback Brent Schaeffer late in the first half of Saturday's game against No. 1 LSU. Not too much more needs to be said about the move itself. The alarming element of this story is how Orgeron defended his move to CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson just before jogging off to the locker room at halftime.
Orgeron pulled Schaeffer--his erratic yet extremely talented signal caller--after a delay of game penalty in the LSU red zone on a drive the Rebels needed to turn into seven points. When asked by Wolfson about the move, Orgeron said that Schaeffer was "rattled." Rattled? That's a mighty strong word to use, Coach O. In a normal world, "rattled" means that a player has been psychologically devastated to the point where his fingers tremble, his nerves are shot, and his will is sapped. "Rattled" applies to Reche Caldwell of the New England Patriots in last year's AFC Championship Game against the Colts. "Rattled" could accurately describe Ohio State in the final 45 minutes of last year's BCS title game against Florida. "Rattled" would apply to the psyches of Vanderbilt, Clemson and Michigan on Saturday when negative forces began to turn against them. Brent Schaeffer made a silly--but not too damaging--mistake on that second-quarter red-zone drive against LSU. The kid was definitely not "rattled." When a coach can't accurately gauge the emotional condition of his players, that's a sign of trouble in river city. When that same coach can't use or understand proper English, that's not exactly a bonus.
In a season where play calling simply hasn't factored into a lot of wins and losses, something needs to be said about this dynamic. Exactly why have coordinators not possessed as much of an impact as they have in previous years?
The Monday Morning Quarterback has noticed that in 2007, play calling is just as much an emotional consideration in college football as it is a strategic element of gameday competition. Todd Blackledge of ESPN pointed out that West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez would rather have good tempo than good play selection. Oregon and new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly also want their offense to run plays quickly and rack up more snaps. An emerging line of thought in contemporary college football is to create structures and situations in which players can be mentally liberated and not sweat the details. Enabling young men to play freely--and without too much stress--can be even more beneficial than selecting the right play from a laminated sheet on 2nd and 6 at midfield with 3:31 left in the third quarter of a three-point game. This much is indeed clear: play calling--if you haven't noticed before--is a very emotional component of a football game.
Two years ago, during the Fresno State-USC shootout that capitvated a national television audience, Fox Sports analyst Petros Papadakis made the observation that USC, on the FSU 1, needed to run the ball into the end zone instead of trying a play action pass with quarterback Matt Leinart. Papadakis said that football sometimes becomes "a chest-puffing rooster show," or an exhibition in which the way you score a touchdown is just as important as scoring a touchdown itself. Why is this the case? In that game from two years ago (November 19, 2005), USC needed to run the ball into the end zone to prove that the physical Bulldogs weren't going to push the Trojans around.
What actually happened? Indeed, USC ran the ball to score its touchdown, which--for the record--occurred very early in the third quarter. Given Reggie Bush's ability to run wild in a memorable second half that carried him to the Heisman Trophy, it can safely be said that SC's muscular approach paid off. The "chest-puffing rooster show" wasn't an empty or hollow piece of theater; it was a real act of psychological warfare that paid real-world dividends. Whenever coaches can (honorably and ethically) create positive momentum on their sideline and in their huddle, they need to pull the lever. More and more football lifers are beginning to realize that play calling is an emotional organism, not just a technique-based, X-and-O proposition.
To hammer this point home, consider what happened this past Saturday: was play selection going to affect the trajectory of Tennessee's comeback win over Vandy? No matter what Commodore coach Bobby Johnson tried (or didn't try) in the final seven minutes of that crushing loss, nothing seemed likely to work, because the emotional battle had already been lost. On the flip side of the equation, play selection similarly had little to do with Purdue's late comeback at Indiana (which fell just short at the end). The Boilermakers simply caught fire while the Hoosiers briefly wondered if they were really supposed to win the Old Oaken Bucket. Elsewhere across the country, dozens of teams--South Carolina, Arkansas, Arizona, Louisville, Michigan State, and Boston College are just a few examples--have seen wild and pronounced fluctuations in their offensive outputs from week to week. While matchups might affect offensive production to a considerable degree, close observation of these teams suggests that emotional well-being and internal confidence (or lack thereof) have even more centrally determined the fates of these teams' offenses.
When momentum acquires the force of a runaway freight train, play calling doesn't quite become irrelevant, but it definitely deceases in importance... at least in its traditionally understood sense. When confidence surges through one team's bodies while evaporating on an opposing sideline, the one job of a play caller is to avoid screwing up or, more accurately, to simply continue to do what's working. All too many times in this 2007 season, which has been dominated by emotions to an unusual degree (that's a strange thing to say in a sport that is defined by emotions to begin with, but it's hard to shake the notion), we've seen how confidence--much more than X-and-O calculations--winds up determining the outcome of a football game. For all the upsets that have taken place this season, there have been very few fantastic finishes. This hasn't been the year of the play caller; it's been the year of the motivational coach whose job is to feed confidence more than exposing an opposing defense.
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Week Thirteen: November 26, 2007
In the college football industry, victory often masks weaknesses while losses just as often hide considerable strengths. This week's column is a letter to Alabama fans who now know what it's like to experience both of those realities in a yo-yo of a season that is now over.
When a columnist dares to advance criticisms in the wake of a victory, it's extremely hard for fan bases to view such remarks in an honest light. Surely, the reasoning goes, the writer is bitter and hateful toward the program. Surely, only the worst of the worst could dare criticize a team, coach or player in a moment of elation and triumph.
But then, there's the other side of the equation: a columnist can praise a team even in the aftermath of a bad defeat or--gasp!--a series of losses. Granted, this happens rarely, but one thing I've always maintained in this business over the past several years is that, when given a chance to show true and genuine impartiality, a professional sportswriter will step up to the plate and deliver.
Alabama fans (especially those who've kept close tabs on me over the past few years, especially since the 2006 Cotton Bowl), you have arrived at just such a moment.
In the recent past, when this columnist ripped the UA administration for firing Mike Shula and paying Nick Saban $32 million, you expressed your vigorous disagreement and manifest displeasure. And when this columnist dared to criticize the performance of quarterback John Parker Wilson after the great late escape against Arkansas, a lot of you understandably felt that you were witnesses to a cruel and savage attack that was unwarranted. Surely, a writer had a vendetta against Nick Saban and the entire Alabama program; no encouraging words would ever again be written about Crimson Tide football by the same man who just didn't understand why Mike Shula had to be fired.
Well, you'd be wrong, Bama fans. Encouraging words are part of this week's post-Thanksgiving menu in the Monday Morning Quarterback.
One of the particularly difficult challenges of life is found in the face of the many upheavals and rollercoasters that affect us as emotional and vulnerable flesh-and-blood beings. It's all too easy to be very high in moments of triumph, and very low in moments of defeat. It takes a long time (if ever) to finally follow the advice of the poet Rudyard Kipling: "Meet with Triumph and Disasterand treat those two impostors just the same." This is human nature; it's a hard beast to understand, let alone control. But try one must in the attempt to get a handle on the deepest emotions that pour out of our deepest selves.
Within the framework provided by competitive sports--including but not limited to college football--it is unerringly and unceasingly true that extremes (good or bad) don't get revealed in individual games or moments. Greatness and ineptitude are both exposed only after extended glimpses into the souls of athletes, in both individual and team-based contexts. For example, this columnist clearly made a big mistake when he felt it appropriate to call Kentucky an elite team after the LSU win. At the end of this season, the Wildcats are still a decent team, but no one would call them the cream of the crop. This writer failed to allow the entire season to play out, a definite no-no that was properly refuted by the rhythms of college football and the sports gods.
With all this having been said, then, what about the 2007 Alabama Crimson Tide? What to make of this season, this team, and this coach? After the losses to Mississippi State and especially Louisiana-Monroe, a tidal wave of criticism engulfed the Tide. A number of national writers and talking heads wondered aloud about the value of Saban's $32 million deal. The pile-on amounted to a lot of cheap and easy huffing and puffing from a national press corps that, like a vulture seeing a dead body, swooped in for the pickings with impunity.
Bama fans, I'm here to tell you: just as I told you in moments of victory that you weren't nearly as good as you thought you were, I'm going to tell you in moments of defeat and disappointment that you weren't nearly as bad as you might now think you are. This 2007 season was far from a colossal failure or some grand collapse. Nick Saban did an entirely respectable job of coaching this team, which overachieved solely by virtue of coming as close to the SEC West title as it ultimately did. The win-loss record might not reflect it, but progress should certainly be the buzzword in Tuscaloosa after an up-and-down campaign.
The Alabama season can be summed up thusly: a number of wins were the byproduct of noticeably good fortune, while a number of losses emerged because of alarmingly bad luck and a catastrophic sense of timing. The 2007 Tide played like world-beaters when endowed with supreme confidence, but once this team lost its positive freight-train momentum during the course of the season, everything spiraled downward due to an inability to minimize bad patches. In many ways, this team was little different from any other college football squad: it thrived in the immediate aftermath of confidence-creating crucibles, but crumbled in the wake of spirit-sapping, soul-shredding setbacks. Teams must endure this wrenching emotional rollercoaster before learning how to win on a consistent basis. The inability to attain gargantuan gridiron goals should not lead Tide fans to think that this program's evolution was retarded or halted in 2007. This was a necessary step in a long-term process.
The loss to Louisiana-Monroe was obviously shocking on an immediate gut level, but in the same breath, it shouldn't have been hard for anyone to understand: just two weeks earlier, Alabama came within one fourth-down stop of beating LSU to take over first place in the SEC West. Then--on the basis of essentially one play (a 100-yard pick-six just before halftime)--the Tide lost at Mississippi State in a game where Saban didn't coach poorly at all. When this team took the field in Bryant-Denny Stadium against a Sun Belt opponent, there was very little to play for in an objective sense. The West would not be won, a big bowl bid was out of the question, an Auburn week was just around the corner. Tell me: human nature being what it is, would YOU have maxed out like a madman against (Louisiana) Monroe? I have the emotional honesty to admit that if I were a front-line starter for the Tide--a 20-year-old kid still learning a lot about myself and the world--I'd have sagged and slumped on that afternoon in Tuscaloosa. Who are we kidding?
The firestorm of cheap and easy "fast food" criticism from national writers after the Monroe mess was--while predictable--so disappointing because it was delivered so casually and automatically. There was little to no acknowledgment of the emotional reality facing the Alabama team at the time. It was as though the game was treated as a science formula based on various statistical weights and measures. Well, if you've learned one thing from my columns over the past seven years, Bama fans (and other regular readers), you should know that mental toughness is the number one virtue in competitive sports. A little extra innate ability--and a few extra tenths of a second in the 40-meter dash--won't exactly hurt, but when you get down to brass tacks in college football or any other from of big-time athletics, the foremost key is for the mind to be clear and sharp enough to get out of the way. Only when the mind is healthy can the body of the human athlete perform at a pronounced peak. Only when the mind is right can talent spill out in full flower on a gridiron... or a hardwood slab... or a grassy diamond... or a tennis rectangle... or a hockey rink. The mind is the gateway to a fully functioning body; without mental toughness, specimens--as chiseled or cut as they might in fact be--turn into impotent and quavering shells of hollowed-out humans.
Alabama's loss to UL-Monroe wasn't a failure of talent or an indictment of a team's quality. The setback wasn't a reflection on Nick Saban or a verdict on the 2007 season. No, the game was merely a reflection of one afternoon's emotional tank... a tank that was understandably running on empty. Bama was rarely as good in 2007 as its best victories suggested, but the Tide were certainly far better than their worst losses might superficially indicate.
In any sport--anytime and anyplace--it's so easy to think that one loss represents a full-blown collapse, or that one great victory means that zero problems exist on the horizon. Consider the examples of individual stars such as Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. When either man loses just once on a big stage, a large chorus of doubters emerges in a 21st century edition of "The Great Inquisition." You'd think that Federer could barely hold a tennis racquet from the way the Swiss superstar gets buried in the aftermath of any defeat. The man won 87 percent of his tennis matches in 2007, while once again winning three major titles. Yet, many observers pronounced that Federer had a down year. But when Federer reminded everyone of his brilliance at a season-ending championship tournament a few weeks ago, all those criticisms were quickly forgotten. Cheap and easy fast-food commentary experienced the quick death it definitely deserved. Such has also been the case whenever Tiger fails to win a major golf tournament: one major per year (a great year for any "normal" golfer) is cause for talk of a "slump" to emerge in the world inhabited by Woods.
You should clearly be able to see how ludicrous this kind of commentary in fact is.
Good, honest sports analysis--in college football and in any other field of athletic endeavor--will have the levelheadedness needed to be contrarian in nature. When the tidal wave of popular sentiment gets caught up in the euphoria of victory, a sports analyst needs to apply the brakes and point out relevant weaknesses or shortcomings in the beloved hometown team. But when the energies of human emotions bring about an avalanche of attacks and assaults upon the same ballclub (or individual coach, or individual player) during moments of misery and disappointment, a sports analyst needs to show why the sky isn't falling after all. Fans get too starry-eyed in victory, and too devastated in defeat. Triumph makes us human beings too full of ourselves, while a loss makes us far too despairing and bitter. Good sports analysts--columnists with a conscience--will have the courage to speak out against the prevailing sentiment on most occasions. Those who resist the easy temptation to dole out "fast food criticism"--as was the case in the aftermath of Alabama's loss to Louisiana-Monroe--are the writers who earn the respect of the Monday Morning Quarterback and the Weekly Affirmation.
One can only hope, Alabama fans, that future football seasons will witness better and more responsible handling of your team's ups and downs, as should be the case with any other college football program.
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Week Fourteen/Season Finale: December 3, 2007
As another regular season recedes into history, this column--before taking a pre-bowl break--offers a list of observations on the coaching scene.
NOTE: All of the awards below are handed out so that no one will receive two honors at the same time. No reduplication here...
Monday Morning Quarterback Coach of the Year: Mark Mangino, Kansas. To pull 11-1 out of the hat in Lawrence is akin to the Bill Snyder miracle several years ago in the Sunflower State. A phenomenal job by the coach who truly proved that sound schooling can turn modest talent into big-time results. Kansas was taught better than any other team in the country--it was something you could see and feel.
MMQ Coaching Story of the Year: Ron Zook, Illinois. There wasn't a better feel-good story in the coaching community in 2007, though Sylvester Croom of Mississippi State came awfully close. Zook endured considerable criticism that, one hastens to add, was--solely within the context of football--justified. After this turnaround season in Champaign, however, the Zooker finally showed that he can really coach 'em up well on Saturdays. The man deserves his moment in the sun. It's a Frank Capra Christmas movie, college football style.
MMQ Most Improved Coach of the Year: Al Groh, Virginia. For years, underachieving was the word in Charlottesville. This season, the Cavaliers overachieved. A program just learned to Groh up, precisely when its coach needed to step up his level of performance.
Coaches Fired or Pushed Out With Due Cause: Dennis Franchione, Texas A&M; Chan Gailey, Georgia Tech; Bill Callahan, Nebraska. Coach terminations require ample weight and evidence in order to be justified, and these three cases passed the sniff test. Franchione was mediocre over five seasons, and he lacked an ethical compass. Gailey took the helm at a big-city program with a rich football heritage, yet failed to develop quarterbacks as an offensive guru. Jon Tenuta did the heavy lifting on the Tech coaching staff, and should be offered the job, to be perfectly honest. Callahan continued to preside over 65-point disasters brought about by his leaky defense.
Coaches Unjustly Axed: Ed Orgeron, Mississippi. The Ole Miss job is a coach killer. Good luck, Houston Nutt. You left a volatile situation and entered a delusional one.
Unloved Coaches of the Year (If Not Beyond): Nutt, when at Arkansas; Lloyd Carr, Michigan; Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville; Ty Willingham, Washington (or is it still Notre Dame, or both?); Bill Doba, Washington State; Jeff Bower, Southern Miss; Philip Fulmer, Tennessee; Ted Roof, Duke. One sentence should sum up all these admittedly different case studies: Criticism is far easier to dish out than praise, among fan bases or in the national media. (It also has a particularly adhesive quality--that never helps.)
Coaches With Inflated Reputations That Exceed Career Results: Jeff Tedford, Cal; Kirk Ferentz, Iowa; Ralph Friedgen, Maryland. These once-heralded sideline sultans have done very, very little over the past three seasons. They need to create something special in order to revive formerly fabulous pigskin profiles. These men haven't gotten dumber or worse--they've forgotten more about football than I'll ever know. Still, they have reputations that currently outstrip their actual accomplishments. Some beefing up of credentials is in order.
Quality Coaches Who Are Struggling: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina; Nick Saban, Alabama; Tommy Tuberville, Auburn. These three men all prove that no matter how good you are (and these gentlemen have established themselves as top-shelf coaches in the sport), your career and its win-loss total can both be hijacked by a quarterback who just doesn't have the somewhat cliched yet undeniably relevant "it factor." Blake Mitchell, John Parker Wilson, and Brandon Cox are three of the most puzzling quarterbacks--talented but shockingly frail--to ever play SEC football. What's amazing is that two of these three individuals had great difficulty getting the most out of talented quarterbacks at their previous coaching stops: Spurrier had Doug Johnson at Florida; Saban had Marcus Randall at LSU. Both of those signal callers similarly prevented two of the game's best coaches from accumulating even more accomplishments. Bottom line: give South Carolina, Bama and Auburn a poised, steady and clear-thinking quarterback, and those programs will finally generate real forward momentum.
Quietly Good 2007 Performances: Dan Hawkins, Colorado; Jim Leavitt, South Florida; Mike Riley, Oregon State; Jim Harbaugh, Stanford; Todd Graham, Tulsa; Pat Hill, Fresno State; Bill Lynch, Indiana; Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern; Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt; Troy Calhoun, Air Force; Al Golden, Temple; Turner Gill, Buffalo; Charlie Weatherbie, Louisiana-Monroe. Among these many examples, it's worth pointing out that South Florida has received virtually no publicity after losing three games. Yet, stop and ask yourself: South Florida went 9-3 this year? That's an incredibly awesome performance from Leavitt, who has stood on his head in getting USF to the Sun Bowl and a national network broadcast on New Year's Eve.
Loudly and Emphatically Good 2007 Performances:Croom, Mississippi State; Randy Edsall, Connecticut; Mike Bellotti, Oregon (forget Dennis Dixon's injury); Dennis Erickson, Arizona State; Gary Pinkel, Missouri; June Jones, Hawaii; Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech. Special recognition goes to Croom for significantly advancing the cause of minority head coaches, and to Beamer for leading his school in the aftermath of the April 16 tragedy. Pinkel deserves an extra note of admiration because his school showed patience with him, and the Missouri man delivered the goods in response. Jones deserves a hug for doing his very best work in the years following a motorcycle accident that put his life on hold.
People the MMQ Wants to See at Big(ger) Head Coaching Jobs:Paul Johnson, Navy; DeWayne Walker, def. coordinator, UCLA; Tyrone Nix, def. coordinator, South Carolina; Charlie Strong, def. coordinator, Florida; Joker Phillips, off. coordinator, Kentucky. The college football world is waiting for Johnson to get his hands on a big-name program and see what he can do. The other candidates are credentialed African American men who have paid their dues and deserve to get a great look from programs at various levels.
Coach Who Requires a Highly Philosophical Ten-Page Essay In Order to Be Understood Accurately and Treated Fairly:Les Miles, LSU/Michigan/Somewhere In Between.
The Best Of The Best, Hands Down: In order of current quality, the four best coaches in the United States who have proven their worth year after year are, as follows: 1) Pete Carroll, Southern California, and Jim Tressel, Ohio State (tie); 3) Bob Stoops, Oklahoma; 4) Mark Richt, Georgia.