Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sugar Bowlthoughts

Coachbot coachbots it up. Just yesterday, I commented on how even if Paul Johnson's aggression and willingness to take risks didn't pay off against LSU, it's a promising sign for his continued career at Tech.

Would you like an example of the opposite of "aggression"? Would you like an example about how a lack of "willingness to take risks" can hurt one's college football team? Sugar Bowl, last night, Alabama down 28-17, 4 minutes and change left in third quarter. 4th-and-2 on the Utah 32. The options for a Tide team that has spent its entire season making a living (and, we can be honest here, making a pretty damn prosperous living at that) shoving opponents around and imposing its will and all that physical-physical-physical stuff are: try to maintain their 39-yard drive by rushing for 2 yards, or have Leigh Tiffin attempt a 49-yard field goal.

If you're Alabama, trying to make the first has to be the decision here. For starters, Tiffin has always been the definition of "erratic"; his chances of connecting at this distance in this pressure-packed situation can't be higher than 25 or 30 percent, can they? On top of that, passing on the opportunity to run for 2 freaking yards deep in enemy territory is a clear signal from the head coach to his makeshift offensive line: I don't have any faith in you. The Alabama from the regular season makes that distance--especially against an undersized front like Utah's--in its sleep. To take the field goal--barely a step up from punting the ball--is to quit being Alabama, to give up on the identity the Tide had forged all season.

But, hey, going for it on fourth down isn't the sort of risk an NFL-bred coachbot is willing to take, even when kicking the field goal is, percentage-wise, probably a lot riskier. And so boom goes the kick, it sails wide, and Alabama would never come so close to scoring again.

Saban is, quite obviously (and unfortunately), a phenomenal college football coach. But he has his Achilles heels like anyone, and his failure to sack up on key fourth downs (remember his Shulaesque devotion to the punt in the 2007 Iron Bowl?) is one of them. Last night, it cost him.

Furthermore: panic. The Tide's next drive faced 3rd-and-3, just shy of midfield, on the first play of the fourth quarter. Score still 28-17. You are Alabama. The play-call has to be to plow forward two consecutive times for the first, right? There's still a whole quarter to play. You don't have to put the game wholly in the hands of John Parker Wilson just yet, right? Because when you put the game wholly in the hands of John Parker Wilson down two scores, you have lost the game.

No matter--the call is a Wilson drop-back, the result a sack and a punt. Alabama's next possession, score still 28-17, still 11 full minutes on the clock: incompletion, 7-yard pass, incompletion, punt. Hobbled offensive line and all, 2008 Alabama would have been the last team I would have expected to give up on the run, but with the game on the line, that's what they did. And by the time they got the ball again, there was less than six minutes left, and they had no choice but to ask Wilson to save them. That just wasn't ever going to work.

Remember, too, that it's not like the Tide run game was completely incompetent; Coffee and Ingram ran 21 times for 66 yards, or 3.14 yards a carry. Not great, but not rock-bottom, either. Meanwhile, dump the sack yardage into the passing stats as opposed to the rushing game, and you've got 38 called pass plays for 124 yards, an average of 3.26 yards, plus all three Tide turnovers. If abandoning the run didn't make any sense from an identity or time-remaining standpoint, it didn't even make any from a statistical standpoint. It was, simply, panic.

So, is that on McElwain for the play-calling or Saban for not keeping the coaching ship of a more even keel? It doesn't matter. What matters is that the postgame consensus that Utah outcoached Alabama and outcoached Alabama badly is entirely correct.

D? After Smith's dismissal, the Tide's offense struggling the way it did didn't necessarily shock me; it surprised me, certainly, but given how badly the Tide struggled against a Tulane defense far inferior to Utah's in their only other Smithless performance, I thought it was at least a possibility. But 336 passing yards for Brian Johnson? 8.2 yards a pass? Against the fourth-best per-play defense in the country? I'm floored, still. After the Utes scored that third TD in their first three possessions, it wouldn't have been all that surprising at that point if they'd celebrated by taking a victory lap down the sideline on a bunch of Shetland ponies, firing Star Wars-style laser blasters into the air. Or something.

In any case, all those of you who believe a pass-first spread offense can't work in the SEC, please move to the back of the class.

Not fair. I don't know if I'll vote Utah No. 1 in my final BlogPoll ballot--my hunch is that a win by either Oklahoma or Florida over the other would make their schedule strong enough that, combined with their season-long dominance, they'd have the No. 1 resume in the country--but that some very intelligent people believe they ought to be No. 1 should tell you something. What it should tell you is that college football employs a system which makes it impossible for what might be the best team in college football to win a national championship. That Utah can go undefeated twice and not even be part of the conversation isn't just a shame--it's an injustice, and college football has to find some way of undoing it.

Lastly, Auburn fans, let's keep the glee to a minimum, if we can. I'm sure I enjoyed last night's game as much as any of you. But my two cents are these: a fan that goes over-the-top in celebrating another team doing what his or her team couldn't only emphasizes that, well, another team did what his or her team couldn't.


Todd Jones said...

You must have been watching a different Sugar Bowl than I was. Our o-line was patched together with a true freshman, a little used backup, and only two out of five guys playing their actual position. We weren't bullying Utah around on the line like we had everyone else all season long. To the contrary, their d-line was having it's sinsister way with us considering we had 31 net yards rushing the entire game as opposed to the 194ish we were averaging before the Sugar Bowl and that we gave up 8 sacks in this game after having only given up 17 in the whole game. Yeah, going for it would have been more satisfying to the fans, but Tiffin had made his first attempt from 50+, and at that point we had to get SOMETHING out of a decent drive and the FG was the better shot.

Anonymous said...

too late on that Auburn celebration thing considering they already rolled Toomers.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Todd, yeah, Utah's d-line was, as you say, having its sinister way with your o-line. And I realize it was a total patch job there. But it's _2_ yards, and as I pointed out, at the end of the day your RBs averaged over 3 (the net rushing totals are WAY skewed because of all the sack yardage). I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this point--I totally agree that you had to get something out of that particular drive. Which is why, to my thinking, Saban should have gone for it instead of riding everything on a 49-yard FG from Tiffin. I think it just comes down to which you think is more likely--the FG or the conversion. I'll take the latter.

Anon., I do what I can.

Anonymous said...

Did any disgruntled bama fans set the paper on fire...again, anon?

Hey! You stole my name!