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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.