Phase of the unexpected: Why special teams plays can break hearts and make legends; Punt, Pass & Pork
BATON ROUGE, La.—LSU coach Les Miles, whose team had endured some special teams tragedy and triumph of its own in the preceding four hours, nodded sadly late Saturday night when asked if he had seen what happened to his alma mater. He had watched Michigan lose 27–23 on one of the unluckiest special teams gaffes in the history of college football. The next question made Miles pause for a moment. How much time did the Tigers spend practicing what to do when routine special teams situations go wrong?
Miles thought about the specific situation the Wolverines were in Saturday against Michigan State. Eleven rushers coming. Two-point lead. Clock ticking. A low punt snap bobbled. Miles thought back to whether he'd gone over such a situation with LSU punter Jamie Keehn. Keehn, like Michigan's Blake O'Neill, grew up in Australia. As SI's Michael Rosenberg pointed out in his column from Michigan State's miracle win, had O'Neill grown up in America, years spent watching the sport might have ingrained a certain situational awareness—an if-this-happens-then-do-this protocol buried deep within his subconscious. Or maybe it wouldn't have made any difference whatsoever. Miles searched his memory to recall what situations he'd discussed with Keehn. "I don't know that I've ever told him other than a two-point opportunity around the end zone," Miles said. In other words, Miles has taught Keehn the math of when to take a safety and when to do everything humanly possible to get the punt away.
But no coach can cover every eventuality at practice. And because football programs spend the least time working on special teams even though that phase can produce the game's biggest momentum swings, the risk of crippling, gut-punching heartbreak always remains. How many times did the 1982 Stanford team practice what to do with an opponent throwing desperation laterals with the band on the field? How many times had the 2013 Alabama team practiced covering missed field goals? How many times had the '15 Michigan team practiced falling on botched punt snaps or tackling ball-carrying punt rushers who absolutely had to reach the end zone or else?
"We put all 11 up there, and things happen," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told reporters Saturday night. "Football is a crazy, crazy game. I can't hardly explain it."
Wild special teams plays can break hearts or make legends. On Saturday in Baton Rouge, a player also bobbled the football in a critical special teams moment. Miles had grilled holder Brad Kragthorpe and kicker Trent Domingue about their readiness to run a fake that had Kragthorpe tossing the ball to Domingue as he took off toward the left sideline. "We are not throwing that thing unless you master it," Miles told his players.
The players had assured Miles they were ready, so Miles called the play in the fourth quarter of a game in which LSU and Florida were tied at 28. Kragthorpe held up his end of the bargain. The throw was perfect. The catch? Not so much. "How many bobbles were there?" Miles asked no one in particular following the Tigers' 35–28 win. "My heart was fluttering with each bobble." Domingue remembers the ball bouncing on his hands. After that, he doesn't recall. "I fortunately brought it back in and ran it. But I kind of did black out a little in the middle of it," the former walk-on from Mandeville, La., said. "I'm not sure what happened after that. I just know I ended up on the other side of the field and almost forgot to kick the extra point."
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
That's the sort of thing that can happen when a player unaccustomed to getting tackled sees 11 players trying to smother him while trying to haul in a football. Fortunately for Domingue, Florida's field goal block team was fooled. Only Gators linebacker Jarrad Davis recognized a fake, but he ran into a surplus of LSU blockers before he could get to Domingue.
Domingue's 16-yard touchdown changed the math in that game. "You know they call him the Mad Hatter for a reason," Domingue said of his coach. Had Miles asked Domingue to kick, LSU could have gone up 31–28. On Florida's next possession, the Gators reached the Tigers' 23-yard line. LSU got quarterback Treon Harris to commit an intentional grounding penalty and the Gators lost 12 yards on first down, but their next plays might have been different had they only needed to get into field goal range instead of needing to reach the 13-yard line for a first down. By executing the fake field goal, LSU forced Florida into desperation mode.
LSU's success on the fake also kept the Tigers from losing because of prior special teams gaffes. In the first quarter, LSU's Tre'Davious White muffed a punt. Florida recovered and scored a touchdown four plays later. In the third quarter, LSU allowed Florida's Antonio Callaway to return a punt 72 yards for a score.
But what happens when the most routine of special teams operations goes awry as it did for Michigan? Deep snappers log thousands of reps with their punters and holders to ensure homogenous snaps that always reach their intended target. The punters and holders log those reps to ensure catching the snap comes as routinely as breathing. Their coaches will install basic parameters for what to do after an anomalous snap that doesn't reach the target, but there simply isn't enough time to prepare for every hypothetical situation. Plus, the specialists have so many reps under their belts that the possibility of a botched operation seems impossible. "I wasn't worried about the hold or the snap," Domingue said of the extra point he almost forgot to kick. "They're always perfect."
Not always, as poor O'Neill learned Saturday. "The snap was low—just below the knees," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters. "He didn't field it cleanly, kind of bobbled it again and kicked it. He was trying to kick in traffic, and you saw what happened. It was very unfortunate." Harbaugh couldn't offer much more of an explanation, because what could he say? Instead, his counterpart provided another perspective on the special teams plays that aren't expected, aren't practiced and yet still wind up living forever.
"You go from 10 seconds and a guy punting the ball and thinking O.K., this is done," Dantonio said. "And then all of the sudden, life gets flipped upside down."
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images
Projected College Football Playoff
1. Utah (6–0)
The Utes messed around with Arizona State in the rain before putting the hammer down in the fourth quarter of a 34–18 win. Utah will probably take a loss at some point in the Pac-12 schedule because it's such a slog, but so far the Utes have been the most consistent of the good Power Five teams.
2. Alabama (6–1)
After playing consecutive contests against physical teams, a game at a fresh-off-a-bye-week Texas A&M would have been a giant trap for most teams. Not the Crimson Tide. Alabama's defense rattled Aggies sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen to the point where Allen now probably shows up in Alabama's school record book in the category that counts single-game touchdown passes to Tide players. (He threw three pick-sixes.) After the 41–23 victory, Alabama returns home to face a Tennessee team energized by its win over Georgia last week. Still, the Volunteers don't seen to have the horses to run with Alabama.
3. Baylor (6–0)
Watching Baylor's 62–38 win over West Virginia, it didn't feel like the runaway it was. That's not unusual with Baylor games. The Bears make big offensive plays look so routine that their blowouts have a way of sneaking up on you. And that's how you can look up and realize the Bears have 62 points and junior quarterback Seth Russell has 380 passing yards and 160 rushing yards. Those are Johnny Football-type numbers, and Russell will likely enjoy a few more similar games. Almost every Baylor play includes a vertical pass option, a handoff option and a Russell keeper option. Defenses can usually take away only two of the three, and West Virginia left the Russell keeper option open frequently on Saturday.
4. Clemson (6–0)
Sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 420 yards against a Boston College team that entered Saturday ranked No. 1 in the nation in yards per play allowed (2.9) and yards per pass attempt allowed (3.9). The Eagles' problem had been on offense, but on Saturday it was Watson—who averaged 10.2 yards per attempt but threw two interceptions in the 34–17 final. The Tigers visit Miami this week, and they should come away with a win. However, Miami has enough raw talent to scare Clemson if the Hurricanes can put everything together for a few hours.
A random ranking
The past two weeks have taught me that you're definitely better at choosing topics for this section than I am, so I've decided to continue crowdsourcing here. This week's topic comes courtesy of Brian, who wants me to rank candy bars. I realize I ranked Halloween candy last October, but I feel the candy bar group merits its own discussion. Of course, the top three candy bars do match my top three from the Halloween candy list.
1. King-size Snickers bar
2. Regular-size Snickers bar
3. Fun-size Snickers bar
4. Hershey's Special Dark
5. Nestlé Crunch
6. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
7. 100 Grand
8. Kit Kat
10. York Peppermint Pattie
Big Ugly of the Week
It's been a while since we honored a good, old-fashioned fat guy score. That ends today. Texas Tech offensive tackle Le'Raven Clark scored on a two-point conversion out of a muddle huddle in Saturday's 30–20 win at Kansas after deep snapper David Brenner flipped the ball to the 6' 6", 308-pounder. Clark can block, too.
Here's him teaching Baylor's Shawn Oakman to keep his head on a swivel. But now that he has tasted the end zone, can Clark ever go back to just plain blocking? Quoth Le'Raven: Nevermore. (O.K., he didn't say that. But his name is Le'Raven. You knew that's where this was going.)
1. To truly grasp the impact of that crazy final play in the Big House, one must hear the call from each team's radio broadcast.
Here is the Michigan State call:
Here is the Michigan call:
2. Sunday, Michigan athletic director Jim Hackett penned an open letter regarding the fans sending nasty messages to O'Neill. It's worth a read.
Dear Michigan family,
This Saturday's game continued to prove the progress that we are making in our football program.
This isn't only the way I feel the morning after a sudden change of euphoria took us to a heartbreaking loss. I know that many feel this—we are proud of our kids.
I know that all of our friends believe in what they saw for nearly 60 minutes of that game. This team left nothing on the field but its best effort.
The quality of Michigan football filled the chilled air.
Today I awake to the shocking reality that our community who care so much about this program would send hurtful, spiteful and vicious comments to one of our students. To be clear, such comments come from a small minority, none of whom are reflective of our institution.
The program I know at MICHIGAN speaks about the team, the team the team. The people I have been associated with my whole life around this fantastic program—some whom are living and some whom have passed on—would never, I repeat never, spread blame.
As our head coach said yesterday, "... this outcome will steel our spine."
That means all of us.
I'm asking that our community not lose this game twice by condoning thoughtless comments and remember the Fielding Yost comment that this is the "Michigan of ours."
3. On the most recent episode of As The Buckeyes Quarterbacks Turn, J.T. Barrett replaced Cardale Jones against Penn State and accounted for four touchdowns in Saturday's 38–10 win. But Ohio State coach Urban Meyer wasn't ready to pull the trigger on a starting quarterback change.
Still, it did sound as if Meyer might be open to the idea. Barrett completed all four passes he threw, including two for touchdowns. He also ran for 102 yards with two scores against the Nittany Lions. Jones completed 9 of 15 passes for 84 yards. Meyer, who has heard plenty of unsolicited opinions regarding this issue, plans to decide for himself. "Just let me evaluate it," Meyer told reporters. "I'll let you guys know on Monday and go from there."
No matter what Meyer decides, everyone in scarlet and gray will be happy if the Buckeyes start beating inferior conference foes by four touchdowns.
4. USC athletic director Pat Haden received medical attention after falling to one knee while feeling lightheaded on Saturday. He was on the sideline at Notre Dame Stadium before the Trojans' 41–31 loss, and he went to the locker room to be checked out by team doctors before stopping at a local hospital.
Still, this wasn't a reassuring image. Haden has been under considerable stress. A week ago, he put coach Steve Sarkisian on indefinite leave when Sarkisian came to work in an altered state. Six days ago, Haden fired Sarkisian. Things will likely only get more stressful for Haden, who received a vote of confidence last week from USC president Max Nikias, as he tries to select the Trojans' next coach.
5. One coach Haden might want to consider is Justin Fuente of Memphis. Fuente took over a moribund program in December 2011 and has turned it into one of the nation's top mid-major teams. After Saturday's 37–24 win over Ole Miss, the Tigers have the inside track to land the automatic big-money bowl bid given to the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five conferences. Memphis has also unlocked a potential scenario that could see it make the playoff—the actual playoff, not one of the ancillary CFP bowls—if it goes undefeated and gets some help.
Here's how that would work. (And yes, I know this is unlikely.) Memphis obviously must keep on winning. The American Athletic Conference is particularly deep this year, and the Tigers still have a lot of work to do on their own. They must beat Navy (currently 4–1) on Nov. 7. Then they must beat Houston (currently 6–0) on the road on Nov. 14. Then they must win at Temple (currently 6–0) on Nov. 21 before winning the American's first league championship game on Dec. 5.
Now for the part that seems far less plausible after the past few weeks. At the same time as Memphis would keep winning, Ole Miss must go on a run. The Rebels still control their destiny in the SEC West race, and a win in hand against Alabama is a huge chip. But Ole Miss hasn't looked like the team that won 43–37 in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 19. If the Rebels can find themselves and win the SEC West title, that might be enough to vault the Tigers into the playoff. Can this happen? Maybe. Ole Miss does get offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil back this week against Texas A&M, but star defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche left the Memphis game with a head injury and didn't return.
The odds remain against Memphis, but given the structure of the playoff, this might be the Group of Five's best shot for a long time.
6. Speaking of undefeated teams that still aren't being regarded as serious playoff contenders, Iowa is 7–0. Given the Hawkeyes' schedule—no Michigan, no Michigan State, no Ohio State—it's possible Iowa could go 12–0. That could make us snarky writers stop calculating the value of Kirk Ferentz's buyout.
Even though the Hawkeyes have found their mojo, they still haven't escaped that most malevolent of fictional college football deities, Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God. Saturday, the Hawkeyes lost senior tailback Jordan Canzeri to an ankle injury. That didn't slow them, though. Sophomore Akrum Wadley took over and ran for 204 yards with four touchdowns in a 40–10 rout of Northwestern.
Now Iowa has five games against five unranked foes and a fairly clear path to the Big Ten title game. A 6–2 league record would probably get it to Indianapolis, but with games remaining against Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska (combined Big Ten record: 3–11), a 7–1 or 8–0 mark seems more likely.
7. You know you've made—and upheld—a horrible targeting call when the affected team's most hated rival takes to Twitter to criticize it. Here's the play that got Michigan senior linebacker Joe Bolden ejected Saturday.
Here's Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott's reaction to the call.
That call💩— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) October 17, 2015
Elliott is correct. Bolden could not control that he got blocked into Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook by Spartans tackle Jack Conklin. Now, officials might have flagged Wolverines linebacker Desmond Morgan—who launched headfirst toward Cook—had Morgan actually made contact. But flagging Bolden was simply a mistake, and the replay official's decision to uphold the call was ludicrous.
College football's targeting policy is important, because anything that reduces the number of headshots is worthwhile. When officials don't use common sense, though, they make it tough to defend the rule.
8. Rutgers coach Kyle Flood's first game back from suspension was a thriller. The Scarlet Knights were trailing Indiana 52–27 in the third quarter on Saturday, but they scored 28 unanswered points and walked off winners after kicker Kyle Federico made a 26-yard field goal as time expired. "I'm proud of my team," Flood said. "I was proud of how we fought back in the first half to get to where we were at halftime. And I'm really proud of how they finished."
9. Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott took over South Carolina's program following Steve Spurrier's resignation last week. Saturday, he led the Gamecocks to a 19–10 win over Vanderbilt. Afterward, he gave this speech. I now will bid farewell to people by saying, "Be careful tonight, and don't do anything goofy."
10. Never complain about a call when the referee's mic is turned on.
What's eating Andy?
If you're a grown human firing online insults at a college punter, it's probably time to reevaluate every previous choice you've made in life. Of course, you're probably too busy tweeting at recruits to do that.
What's Andy eating?
When I realized I was booked to spend three hours in the Atlanta airport Friday en route to Baton Rouge (via New Orleans, because flights into Baton Rouge are outrageously pricy on weekends of LSU home games), I resolved to fire my travel agent*. But when I landed in Atlanta, I noticed another New Orleans flight was set to take off in 45 minutes. The standby gods smiled upon me, and I was on the plane. Of course, I also had a broken phone and an Apple Genius Bar appointment that could not be moved to an earlier time. That meant I had four hours to kill. In the early afternoon. In New Orleans. SI was going to buy a very good lunch.
*My travel agent is me.
One of my favorite places in New Orleans is Cochon Butcher. This is not to be confused with Cochon, chef Donald Link's upscale celebration of the pig. Cochon and Butcher share a wall and a driving force, but the lower-priced, laid-back Butcher offers the superior dining experience. This idea of a lower-priced, casual restaurant attached to an established eatery has become a trend in New Orleans, and for that I am grateful. I chafe at the term "foodie," because it connotes a certain pretension that I lack when stuffing my face. I just like to eat. I also like a deal, which is why the downscale spots appeal to me.
With that in mind, I set out for Bourrée at Boucherie. Boucherie is a well-reviewed, highly regarded spot that fuses flavors from Louisiana and the deeper Deep South. North Carolina native Nathanial Zimet runs the place. At some point, Zimet and partner James Denio decided they wanted to open a place that serves wings and daiquiris. Bourrée was born of this noble ambition. Wings cry out for libation, and fresh-fruit daiquiris can slake a thirst enhanced by jerk sauce.
On my visit, I ordered those jerk wings. I also ordered the mango barbecue wings, the kimchi and lemongrass wings, the fries and the pork cracklins. Those who frequent truck stops probably know that last item better as pork rinds, but these are not the stale husks available at the Flying J. These tasted like they came off a pig smoked that day, and after a small bite I set them aside to snack on while driving to Baton Rouge. I had come for wings. Alas, since I was driving, I did not come for daiquiris.*
*I did, however, have a small taste of the Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, which is not the sugar-and-grain-alcohol swill you drank at the college bar that had all the slushee machines on the wall. This one mixed passion fruit, Earl Grey tea, simple syrup (sugar) and lemon with quality rum.
We'll start with the fries, because you'll get them first and finish them before your wings arrive. They're fresh cut. They're not too big. They're not too small. (Think McDonald's fries in terms of surface area-to-volume ratio, but cut hours earlier instead of months.) They are covered with a Cajun seasoning that will make you want to stuff great, heaping handfuls in your mouth. Do not fill up on fries, though, even if that feels like an unreasonable request.
If prioritizing at Bourrée, skip the mango barbecue wings—which cool the palate but are the least adventurous of the trio—and just order the jerk and the kimchi with lemongrass. The jerk sauce explodes on the tongue thanks to peppers (presumably Scotch bonnet) and sugar. That spicy-sweet combo is ideal for developing a thirst for daiquiris or beer, but it still finished second to the sweet-sour combo of the kimchi wings. The wings at Bourrée are smoked and then finished in the fryer, and the smoke adds even more complexity to tiny chicken parts that most places are content to deep fry, dunk in sauce and serve.
Were I a local, I can imagine dropping in on Bourrée early on a Friday afternoon and then washing down wings and fries with beer or Hurricane Carters while watching the people pass by on Carrollton Avenue until the sun sank beneath the horizon. Then the weekend would truly be ready to begin.