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Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Rose Bowl

This is a bit rough, but I wanted to get these thoughts out as soon as possible...
Give coaches Mike Leach and David Shaw literary props, they sure know how to provide poetic symmetry, if unwitting.  Their bowl experiences provided complementary PAC-12 bookends, one coach precipitating a loss, the other preventing his team from winning.  

What is it in the college football coach DNA that brings out the stubbornness, the short sightedness?

Washington State head coach Mike Leach, self-styled “smartest man in the room,” ploughs ahead with his coaching style, even when doing so leads to a disastrous loss.  On the other hand, David Shaw, who, (along with his team), probably IS the smartest man in the room, has his style and nothing will deter him from staying the course.  Even if it means losing the game.

By most measures, Michigan State’s Spartans were less talented, champions of a league considered significantly inferior to the PAC-12.  Head coach Mark Dantonio figured Stanford would stuff the run so he would have to pass.  A lot.  His game plan was sound and his team executed it to perfection.  

Dantonio changed his team’s style to fit the game.  David Shaw forces the style of the game to fit his team.  We know which coach made the winning decision.

In Shaw’s mind, changing his style means defeat.  To Dantonnio, it means finding a way to win. 

In a stunning turnabout of college football history, it would seem that David Shaw was channeling Woody Hayes while Mark Dantonio channeled Terry Donohue. 

Take the last five minutes as a lesson for the entire game.  Shaw decides to kick a field goal, even though the irreducible goal is to get one touchdown.  Why give up on one of two opportunities to score that TD?   The field goal ensured a closer game but lessened Stanford’s chance to win it.  Even if the Stanford defense does the job and forces MSU into a three-and-out, the game to that point gave no reason to believe that Stanford would be able to move the ball against MSU with a couple minutes left.   Unless, of course, they opened it up.

So what happened?  Faced with a third and short and time on the wane, Shaw could only see the first down as a goal, not the bigger picture.  He ran into the line.  Twice.  His decisions virtually ensured defeat.  Stanford needed to turn Hogan loose.   He should have done it earlier in the game.  He certainly needed to do it at the end.  What’s more, Stanford’s offensive line gave Hogan time to throw virtually every time he needed to.  And he has the talent to pull it off.

The potential poetic tragic metaphors of this game are too numerous to list in one diatribe.  Sports psyches are fragile and like a large but brittle branch, encouraging rigidity invites disastrous failure.  Reeds that bend, however, are also strong, but in a different way.  Wednesday's Rose Bowl was an object lesson. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

It's All About the Stanford - UW Game

The Stanford -Washington game has so much material its almost impossible to discuss anything else.  As you know, Stanford held on for a 31-28 win at home.  Personally, I think Stanford's problem was those lousy black uniforms.  Red shirts, white pants please!

It's the Strategy Stupid
First, lets talk about coaching philosophy.  Stanford's David Shaw prides himself on not caring about "style points."  That's his stock answer when asked why he takes his foot off the proverbial gas, often allowing opponents to claw back into the game.  I wrote about this after the Arizona State game.  Stanford earned a reputation for winning the close games in 2012.  But close games were understandable, given a weak starting quarterback for the first seven games, then an untested Sophomore, the remaining five.  This year, given the personnel, similar results indicate a weakness that coaches like UW's Sarkisian can exploit, namely that Shaw opts to protect a lead rather than put his teams in a position to finish off an opponent. 

Stanford jumped ahead at the opening kickoff with Ty Montgomery's 99 yard dash up the middle for a touchdown.  They basically held that lead throughout the game.  Later, whenever UW closed to within three points, Stanford would open it up and answer almost immediately with some points to jack it back up to ten. Such was the stellar hookup between Hogan and Montgomery for a TD just before halftime. 

But after Stanford achieved that that ten point lead, they'd go flat on offense. To be sure, UW's defense was stellar and rose to those occasions (more on that later).  But too often, Shaw shrank the playbook every time his charges got some breathing room.  I don't believe Hogan threw the ball downfield more than three times the entire game. 

More damning was how Stanford finished the game.  Four consecutive three-and-outs.  Five if you count the last run-out-the-clock possession.

Now let's take a look at Sarkisian.  He seems to have Stanford's number, considering his upset win last year in Seattle and Saturday's close contest.  His strategies, particularly on defense, were superb. He essentially dared Stanford to beat him deep.  He had Stanford receviers covered with a blanket.  No one was ever wide open.  His pass rush strategy was more subtle, but apparently was designed to contain, not sack, Stanford QB Kevin Hogan.  The result?  Hogan had to check off numerous receivers on just about every passing play and usually found them closely covered.  He then didn't have much of a chance to scramble because the UW defensive line was in that "contain" mode.  In other words, UW worked to keep running back Tyler Gaffney and Hogan in the box, daring Stanford to beat them with superior quarterbacking judgment and passing skills.  Stanford's passing numbers speak for themselves:  12 for 20, 100 yards.

Overall, despite the 59 total points scored, I'd rate each defense a 100 for the day.  They both played exceptionally well.  On offense, I'd give UW a 95, deducting only for some untimely first half penalties that probably cost them the lead, and a few dropped passes.  (However, any team that throws the ball 48 times, as UW did, will inevitably have some dropped passes.)  Stanford's offense gets a 75 rating for the aforementioned reasons regarding coach Shaw.

The bottom line on the game, as I see it, is that this is about as well as UW could play.  I doubt they will play a more perfect game all year.  Stanford, on the other hand, has wiggle room to do better.   And they had better if they want to make it through the season undefeated. 

Gimmickry & Chicanery
Much has been made of Sark accusing Stanford of intentionally faking injuries in order to slow the game.  Definitely possible.  Maybe even likely.  Case in point was when Cardinal linebacker and defensive leader Shayne Skov went down in the second half.  I thought for sure his knee was shot along with his senior season (he's had a number of surgeries).  Later, he was back in the game.  Hmmm.

Now, about that hurry-up offense.  As I've posted previously, I have nothing against a stepped-up, no huddle offense.  It eliminates specialty substitutions and favors the team with better conditioning. I do, however, object to the way it is often taken to extremes.  (Oregon is the poster child and UW engaged in it Saturday.) At those times, it's no longer a strategy to exploit weakness in the other team, it's just a gimmick to catch the other guys off guard.

My point is this.  Take baseball.  Remember the "quick pitch" when we were kids?  They don't permit that gimmick in Major League Baseball.  The umpire ensures that both batter and pitcher are ready.  Just imagine a batter who takes one step into the box and a 95 mph fastball comes flying in before he even looks up.  In fact, it's so far out of the vernacular that if you Google "quick pitch" today, all you'll get are shower kits, pitching machines and blog columns. 

In football there's a clock that limits how long a team can take before snapping the ball.  It should also be codified that the refs also ensure a minimum time for defesnes to get back in line.  If you watch closely, you'll see refs already doing this on an ad hoc basis, mostly related to substitution equity.  It needs to be codified.

So what do fake injuries and quick-snap offenses have in common?  Both are within the rules but contrary to the spirit of the game.  At least tamping down the rush-rush thing is easier to enforce than preventing guys from taking dives.  Perhaps putting some reasonable limits on the fast-forward goofiness will help dampen the enthusiasm for faking it. 

The polls foolishly dropped UW after the loss and rewarded Stanford by keeping them in the five slot.  Wrong move.  Stanford should drop to around eight and UW should move up to about ten.  Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News got half of it right in his own poll vote, slotting the Dawgs at number ten. 

More Polls
There seem to be two philosophies amongst those voting in the polls.  One is based solely on the record.  Wins and losses are the only thing that counts with these folks, style points be damned.  A second perspective is wherein voters look at the strength of schedule, results of the opponents, etc. Kind of a primitive regression analysis.

I prefer the second way.  But somewhere down the line when you're slotting teams relative to one another, you've got to start asking the "who would win"* question.  It's not even enough to look at the wins plus strength-of-schedule.  Eventually, you have to do some educated speculation to get it to all line up. 

*And you thought I was going to go the entire blog without dissing the Bee-One-Gee.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Slow Week

Not a whole lot to talk about after last week's relatively slim pickings game-wise.  Stanford revealed a potentially fine downfield passing attack which, theoretically, should open things up for their run game.  The first big test is at home Saturday versus the Dawgies from Washington. UW shut them down in Seattle last year, but that was before Stanford started Kevin Hogan at quarterback.  UW QB Kevin Price looks back on form this year and it should be a fun game.

Bon Mots du Jour
Some nice quips from Jon Wilner's blog in the San Jose Mercury News (I just love the name of that paper):
  • On the upcoming Oregon-Colorado matchup:  "No chance the Ducks put 70 on CU this year. They won’t score more than 65."
  • On USC:  "Given Lane Kiffin’s track record, look for him to be named coach of the Patriots tomorrow."

Why Do I Bother
Can someone please explain to me why Ohio State is ranked ahead of Stanford?  The Bucks resume includes wins over Buffalo (they who were taken to overtime by Stony Brook!), a lousy San Diego State, Cal (OSU gave up 34 points to arguably the second worst team in the PAC) and perennial powerhouse Florida A&M.  They then squeaked by Wisconsin at home.  Stanford doesn't have a great resume yet, but flattened an Arizona State team in Tempe that already beat Wisconsin.  Yeah, a bit convoluted.  But conventional wisdom has the PAC as one of the strongest conferences in the country and the Bee-One-Gee as one of the weak sisters.  So whazzup?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Don Nehlen Football

The Cardinal pulled a Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde Saturday v. Arizona State.  Going up 29-0 at the half there appeared nothing Stanford could not do:  run, pass, return kicks, kick covereage, run defense, pass defense.  You name it.

Now, to be fair, ASU made some mental errors, like dropped passes, that really hurt.  And Stanford pulled out some new formations and some tricky plays that really put ASU on their heels.  Thus played out a most impressive first half for the Cardinal.

The fourth quarter was a total mystery to me.  Coach David Shaw's post-game reaction was as lame as the team's performance that fifteen minutes.  It was truly painful watching Arizona State finally get it together and start putting together some big plays and post 21 points sandwiched around two Stanford three-and-outs.  For those series, Shaw put in reserve QB Evan Crower -- who many say has a great arm and just as great a future ahead at Stanford -- and promptly shelved his game plan.  He had Crower hand off up the middle on six consecutive snaps.  Because the Cardinal lined up in their packed muscle formation, everyone knew it was coming.  Including the Sun Devils.  To no one's surprise, ASU stuffed them.

Now about Shaw's reaction.   He was clearly defensive when the question came up from a very timid radio post game interviewer. Blaming his players, Shaw said his charges didn't execute as expected in the fourth quarter.  Oh, please.  You have to have something to work with first, reference: the play calls. On defense he had a point.  They just didn't get it done in the fourth.  But because Shaw packed up the offense, the defense found themselves on the field all the time, and fatigue had to be a factor.  But you have to give ASU some credit.  To quote a response to Joe Paterno's carping some fifty years ago, "Hey, c'mon Joe, the other team has some good players, too!"  (My Dad knew a fellow assistant coach of Paterno's.  A good story.)

All in all, Shaw's poor decisions let his team down.  Reminds me of another coach who really had a way with bad decisions.  He was fired from Bowling Green State University for it and subsequently served some years as an assistant to Bo Schembechler at Michigan.  There he learned from the master and, older, wiser and better, went on to great success at West Virginia.

Don Nehlen football.  We don't need that at Stanford.

Utah v. BYU

What is it with referees and the god schools (BYU and Notre Dame)?  I saw some incredibly bad calls by the refs, all in the fourth quarter, that handed BYU numerous opportunities to pull out the game vs. Utah.  They even overturned a pass interference penalty against the Cougars.  When have you ever seen that one?  Replays showed the refs were clearly wrong in their replay assessment.

ESPN Talking Head
Former U-Dub QB Brock Huard is now a color commentator on ESPN.  He's gotta be one of the best I've seen.  This guy has it all.  He's smart and knowledgeable, and also has the voice and the looks for TV.  I remember sitting a few rows behind him when he was still a blemish-faced high school recruit out of Puyallup attending a UW game while his older brother, Damon, was at the helm for the Dawgies. Brock eventually QB'd the Huskies and went on to the NFL with the Seahawks and Colts.     

Qwik Thots
  • I've never gotten fully comfortable with those one color uniforms.  Particularly red ones.  I still think they look like pajamas. 
  •  From the "Are You Stoned or Something" files:  Why is Notre Dame called the Irish?  It's French.  Yeah, I get the Irish Catholic thing.  But it's namesake is the home of Quasimodo for crying out loud.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Futbol Thots is back up and running for 2013. Let's start off with general musings about trends in the game.

Up Tempo Offense
This latest fad in college football offense, popularized by Oregon, I believe, has swept the country.  I still can't shake the feeling that its just too gimmicky.  Yeah, keep the defense from situational substitutions on each play, tire out the defense.  I get all that.  But it seems to me that, taken to the hurry-up extremes of some teams, its just a bush league trick to get the play off before the other team is ready.  Funny, though, how the no-huddle makes the game more like its root game rugby.

Helmet No-Hit Rules
This is one change I have welcomed.  Some folks have said its taking the toughness out of football.  Well, just tell that to the guys who played with little padding three generations ago.  No, the new rules are welcome.  Using the body as a helmet-tipped missile is dangerous for both tackler and the tackled.  It's only modern equipment that made them possible and it took football in a direction it was never meant to go.  No intentional helmet-to-helmet contact, no helmet-first into the chest or chin on a vulnerable opponent.

I saw a couple of instances this past weekend of tacklers who opted for a solid wrap-up tackle instead of a missile hit.  Not only is the change doable, it's also a good idea.  It's what we used to do when we tackled without protective equipment.  It kind of pulls the game back to its roots.   Sorta like...wait for

The PAC is off to a good start this year, so far fulfilling expectations as being a premier conference.  The marquee game was UCLA executing a second-half dismantling of Nebraska.  Oregon looks scary, again.  But don't also forget that Cal, considered by some as possibly the worst team in the league, rolled up a ton of points on Ohio State, a team many expect to play for the national championship.  

To Todd Graham, Arizona State head coach who gets on defensive coordinator Paul Randolph after watching one of his players excessively celebrate a tackle for a loss.
"Do we do that here?" he asks.
"No, sir," Randolph responds.
"We don't do that crap here," Graham barks. "Tell him to cut it out. Hold him accountable. Teach him."
Graham may be a "jar-head," but he's my kind of jar-head, at least in this case.

Most Overrated (so far)
Gotta be Notre Dame (yeah, big surprise there) and Northwestern.  ND usually gets an automatic berth in the ratings just by, well, being ND.  What's their resume so far?  Wins over powerhouse Temple and rival Michigan, then a squeaker against a Purdue team blown out by Cincinnati and barely got past Indiana State.

I watched Northwestern just get by (and get out-gained by) Cal in the opener for both teams in Berkeley.  They got past Syracuse on four-turnovers and then beat Western Michigan, an 0-3 team that was knocked off by Nicholls State.  They have Maine up next, so one more week in the rankings.  After that it's Ohio State and Wisconsin.  They'll drop from the rankings, never to be seen again.

Some Fun
Now this is something you don't see everyday.  Stanford reserve safety, Joe Flacco, had a most excellent adventure during his team's visit to West Point v. the Black Knights of Army.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bowl Update #3

Computer v. the Experts v. the Sports Proletariat
Popular consensus has been much revered these past ten years, popularized by Smart Mobs and The Wisdom of the Crowds.  It has even spilled over into our political discussions, bipartisanship being the resulting much sought holy grail. The idea is that you'll get a pretty accurate prediction or estimate on something if you just let a whole lot of people vote on it.  The same principle has been popularly applied to market theory (hey, they can't all be wrong, can they?)  I've always felt the concept was a lot of mush, nothing more than popular anti-elitist esteem building to push back against disciplined statistical analysis.  

College football, of course, has been way ahead of the curve, basing the process of selecting its national champions on polls. But there are polls and there are polls. There's the USA Today Coaches Poll, the AP Sportswriters poll and the various computer polls.  The results of the first two are suspect, as I pointed out in a previous post, subject to regional bias.  Are the computer polls any better?  Inquiring minds want to know.

I thought I'd do a quick check, picking the well-regarding Sagarin poll and comparing its bowl predictions to the AP, USA Today and point spreads (which are determined largely by the betting public).  Given that the computer poll can sometimes produce some eye-popping, seemingly preposterous conclusions (e.g. Stanford is rated #1 in Sagarin's "predictor" analysis), the results are enlightening.

On my sampling of a dozen bowls involving major conferences, the AP and Coaches poll both collected 7-5 records, wrongly picking winners in the same games: South Carolina, Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska and West Virginia.  Sagarin's computer poll and the point spread odds both went 9-3, correctly picking Florida State over South Carolina and Alabama over Michigan State (the latter is the poster child of how ridiculously biased the polls can be).

Based on this sampling, the computer bettered the "experts."  But so did the point spreads, determined as they are by the unwashed masses.  There's going to be separation in the next two major bowls, however.  The AP poll, USA Today poll and the mob all pick Auburn over Oregon and LSU over Texas A&M.  The computer has LSU and Texas A&M in a dead heat.  But only the computer picks Oregon.  We shall see...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Bowl Update #2

Big Ten Carnage
Big Ten football is in the news, but not in the way they would prefer.  I just finished reading an ESPN interview of Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. Among his comments about the Big 10's New Year's Day of losses are these bon mots:

I’ve always sought out ...the best competition.  [Y]ou test yourself against the best and you get measured. If you want to be .500 or if you want to win 70 percent of your games, you can schedule that. A lot of people do in September. What it really comes down to is how you play big games against great opponents...

Oh, really?

I did a bit of research into scheduling, comparing the Big Ten with the PAC 10 (Unfortunately, I don't have the time to crunch numbers on the other major conferences).  The results are revealing. They may help explain the Big Ten's Bowl difficulties.

First, let's look at regular season non-conference games against BCS conference teams or other (typically) good teams (such as Notre Dame, Boise State and TCU). It doesn't necessarily mean you played a quality team, since schedules are often formulated years in advance.  But it gives you an idea of the two conference's relative level of confidence on the national stage.

# of Quality Non-Conference Games
Average Per Team
Big Ten
PAC 10

Keeping in mind that the PAC 10 plays three non-conference games, that means just one is a "sure thing." The Big Ten typically schedules about three such gimmes.

Now let's turn to the number of home games.  It's a given that the home advantage is a huge factor in college football success.

Average # Home Games Per Team
Big Ten
PAC 10

So, do this little mind experiment: change a Big Ten home game to an away game.  Take away one of their patsy non-conference games and add a game versus a BCS conference.  Take away another patsy non-conference game and replace it with a league game (matching the PAC 10's full schedule). I would think its pretty safe to say that you're going to add an average of one loss per team. At least. What would you suppose that would do to their relative regard nationally?

So let's get back to Big Ten Commissioner Delany.  He contends that the Big Ten had a difficult time because they were underdogs in so many bowl contests.  But according to BCS rankings, they're not. Unless you accept the fact that the Big Ten gets undeserved ratings boosts.  You can't have it both ways.

A final observation:  the only teams from the Big Ten that did not make it to a bowl are those that couldn't win more than two conference games.  Two!

Wisconsin v. TCU
This was a thoroughly entertaining game.  In a classic match up of Wisconsin's brawn v. TCU's speed, TCU proved itself tough enough.  What was notable - and admirable - was Wisconsin's final drive for the potential tie.  I could just imagine the boys getting together before that possession saying, "this is it, our season rests on us getting to the end zone before the clock runs out."  Despite failing on the two point conversion, it was most impressive. Nicely done Badgers.

Stanford v. Virginia Tech
I think I'm going to avoid predictions in the future because it takes the fun out of watching games in which I want the other team to win.  But I already stuck my neck out on the Big Ten, and have been mostly right.  In tonight's Orange Bowl, I'm still thinking that Stanford is going to light it up offensively.  The only question is how well Stanford can contain Tech's QB.

I've never seen so many games in which the replay booth overturned ball possession calls without the requisite "incontrovertible visual evidence."  Toledo got jobbed by such a call.  So did Missouri.  So did a number of other teams.  I can't help feeling that any replay can isolate one frame that seems to show the ball touching the ground. But, taken in toto, ball possession/control is plainly demonstrated.  Please get rid of the instant replay and just play the game.