Small decisions, big results: How Week 4 games were won and lost; Punt, Pass & Pork
The coach was asked about the two-point conversion chart. His team had scored a touchdown to go up 12 points early in the fourth quarter, and he had ignored the mathematical wisdom of the chart and kicked an extra point. His team wound up losing, 28–27. Here is his answer to the question.
"I don't go for two early. If we missed it, a touchdown and two field goals would beat you."
Wait. That's not what Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Saturday after his team fell by that same score at Florida. So, who said it?
It was Bobby Bowden in a press conference after his Florida State team lost at Miami in 2002. You probably don't remember that game as Bobby Didn't Go For Two Up 12. You may, however, remember it as Wide Left.
Bowden's decision ended up contributing to a loss that was ultimately decided by a ball drifting just outside a goalpost upright. That's exactly what happened to Jones Saturday. Tennessee sophomore kicker Aaron Medley's 55-yard field goal attempt barely skimmed past the right side of the right upright. The difference between agony and ecstasy was less than a foot. The 2002 blunder didn't hurt Bowden's career much. So, why could the same decision to kick an extra point up 12 in Saturday's fourth quarter harm Jones in the long term?
The answer lies in something Jones said a few minutes after the question about the two-point conversion chart. (Jones said the Volunteers have a standard chart, but if they do use the one made famous by Dick Vermeil, they ignored it at Florida.) Jones was trying to explain how his team would bounce back from the loss when he said this: "It doesn't define who we are."
Except that, unfortunately, it does.
Football final scores are the results of thousands of small decisions and the outcomes of those decisions. Sometimes those decisions are out of a coach's control, and sometimes teams are plain unlucky. Jones didn't send a 12th player out with the field goal unit Saturday. Somebody just got excited and ran onto the field at the wrong time. If that doesn't happen, Medley kicks a 50-yarder. Maybe he makes it, and the honeymoon for Jones continues in Knoxville. Jones probably couldn't have known that two timeouts called before fourth downs Saturday to get the desired personnel on the field would cause Florida counterpart Jim McElwain to rethink kicking and put his offense back in. Both decisions led to Florida first downs, and the second—late in the third quarter—led to a Florida touchdown.
We can count all the instances of happenstance and bad luck and rule that a coach and team ultimately had as good a chance of winning as they did of losing. But eventually we must draw the line somewhere. We have chosen as a society to draw that line at the final score. Bill Parcells certainly understood all of the factors that decide the outcome of a football game, and he still spoke the words that ring true in football and in life. "You are," Parcells famously said, "what your record says you are."
When Bowden opted for a PAT up 12 at Miami, he already owned two national titles. The 2001 season had been the first since 1986 that his Seminoles didn't finish in the top four of the AP Poll. His place in history was safe. (Even if that choice—which, in its own way, was a byproduct of Bowden's '01 decision to make his son Jeff the Seminoles offensive coordinator—was a sign of things to come for Florida State.) Jones doesn't have that luxury. He inherited a massive rebuilding job at Tennessee, but now he's in year three and his record isn't reflecting major improvement. The Volunteers are still young, but they've managed to turn a 17-point lead against Oklahoma and a 13-point lead at Florida into a pair of heartbreaking losses.
This doesn't mean the Tennessee administration needs to consider changing coaches. Given the churn that put the program in a rebuilding state in the first place, that might be the dumbest move possible. But the Vols need to start playing their way on to the sunny side of the final score, because they're currently on the business end of some nasty statistics.
The biggest problem for Tennessee is that Florida is in the first year of an offensive rebuild. First-year coach Jim McElwain inherited a solid defense when he took over for Will Muschamp, but Florida's inexperienced offensive line gives McElwain a better excuse than Jones has on that side of the ball. Saturday, on fourth-and-14 from their own 37-yard line in the fourth quarter, the Gators had only one lineman on the field (redshirt senior left guard Trip Thurman) who started a game last season. Florida's most experienced lineman in this case was right tackle Mason Halter, who started two seasons at Fordham before transferring this off-season. That line gave redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier enough time on a play called Train Right Jill Big Ben In to hit true freshman receiver Antonio Callaway for the 63-yard touchdown that ultimately won the game. "You just don't lose to Tennessee," McElwain said. "Don't know if we deserved it or not, but I sure like it this way [rather than] the other way. It was pretty cool. Wasn't it?"
That sentiment wasn't all that different from the one expressed by TCU coach Gary Patterson a few minutes later in Lubbock. The Horned Frogs had taken a 55–52 lead after junior running back Aaron Green snagged a ball in the back of the end zone once it bounced away from intended receiver Josh Doctson. They had nearly blown that lead when Texas Tech came 10 yards away from completing what would have become the Big 12's version of the Cal-Stanford band play. "I was in an overtime—triple-overtime—game against them at our place two or three years ago where we lost it on the last play, and so I figure between Tech and West Virginia, these games are always going to be like this," Patterson said. "I've gone from one baby aspirin to two. I can tell you that. Next I'll be taking Extra Strength Tylenol. Jiminy Christmas."
Patterson understands that even though he makes some great coaching decisions, randomness will occasionally help decide a game. The trick is to coach players to know how to deal with that randomness. Green said he simply followed his training and kept following the ball.
Kliff Kingsbury, the coach on the other side, understands that Saturday's loss will help define the Red Raiders. That's why Kingsbury declined any opportunity to accept a moral victory for nearly upsetting one of the Big 12's preseason favorites. "We felt like we have a good team, and we didn't execute like we should have," Kingsbury said. "But that's a good football team they have, and they got it done."
Kingsbury likely pored over all of his decisions Sunday looking for the one or two that might have eliminated the influence of randomness. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema will probably do the same after his team's 28–21overtime loss to Texas A&M, and he won't have to watch far into the game to find a huge decision that could have altered the outcome. On the Razorbacks' first possession, Bielema elected to punt on fourth-and-two from the Texas A&M 48-yard line. While this isn't as clear a decision as going for two up 12, the math suggests the more reliable move is going for it.
According to the fourth-down calculator at advancedfootballanalytics.com, the expected points from going for it in that situation are .61. The expected points from punting are minus-.22. You can expect to score points by going for it, and you can expect to lose points by punting. Remember, the Razorbacks needed only one more point at the end of regulation to win. They might have gotten at least three more had they attempted and converted that fourth down, but instead they elected to punt. And while A&M was forced to punt after four plays, Aggies senior punter Drew Kaser erased any field position advantage Arkansas might have gained with its decision by booming a 54-yard punt that was downed at the Razorbacks' 14.
It isn't always the decisions made in the fourth quarter that lead to team-defining results, but those are the ones we remember. That's why Jones will probably take more heat than Bielema this week even though they did the same thing (ignoring math) and got the same result (a loss). While neither is in danger of losing his job, each risks walking back the obvious progress he has made in his program if he can't start making enough correct micro decisions to lessen the influence of randomness on the macro result.
Maybe next time he finds himself in this situation, Jones will have done enough to keep celebrating.
And maybe the team on the other sideline won't go from tears to cheers in the amount of time it takes to signal wide right. "Everybody was getting a heart attack, man. I almost died out there," Florida junior linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "I'm telling you. I thought he made the field goal. I was over there crying already."
Projected College Football Playoff
1. Utah (4–0)
I told you this projection would swing wildly in the first few weeks of the season, and I wasn't kidding. The Utes crushed Oregon 62–20 in Eugene, but that isn't the only reason they've gone from off the list to No. 1. Did you watch Michigan hammer BYU on Saturday? The Utes beat the Wolverines, too. No other team in the country has two wins that look as good at the moment. And since this projection only takes into account what has happened this season, the Utes get the top spot.
2. UCLA (4–0)
The Bruins went into Tucson and whipped Arizona 56–30 on the day road teams roared in the Pac-12. In the same week that UCLA lost junior linebacker Myles Jack for the season, the team showed off its depth. Do I believe that two schools from the same division will finish No. 1 and No. 2 in the final College Football Playoff selection committee ranking? I'm highly skeptical. Still, I believe that if two teams from the same conference were to make the field, they would come from the same division. The most logical way that could happen would be if the division champ goes undefeated and wins the league, and the division runner-up loses only to the division champ. It's basically the Alabama-LSU scenario from 2011.
3. Ole Miss (4–0)
You could spot a sluggish Rebels performance against Vanderbilt coming almost as soon as Ole Miss finished beating Alabama 43–37 last week. Since head coach Derek Mason took over the play-calling duties for the Commodores' defense, that unit has been pretty stingy. Add to that a team that got a little full of itself because we idiots in the media anointed it the best thing since sliced bread, and you have a recipe for a tight game against an inferior opponent. But the Rebels did pull it out, 27–16. This week they head to Gainesville to play a Florida team that is miraculously 2-0 in SEC play.
4. Notre Dame (4–0)
The Fighting Irish pounded UMass 62–27 as expected. Whether they stay on this list moving forward depends on what happens Saturday in Clemson. An impressive performance by the Tigers could put them on the list.
A random ranking
Ryan Adams recently released a song-for-song cover of Taylor Swift's 1989, and now there's an argument about whether the Adams version is better than the original. Spoiler alert: They're both excellent. (Yes. I like a Taylor Swift album. Deep down, you know you love this one, too.) Still, listening to Adams turn "Shake It Off" into a bluesy rocker that sounds like a lost Bruce Springsteen track got me thinking about the best covers ever made. Here are the top 10.
1. "All Along The Watchtower" — Jimi Hendrix (Original: Bob Dylan)
2. "Hurt" — Johnny Cash (Original: Nine Inch Nails)
3. "Respect" — Aretha Franklin (Original: Otis Redding)
4. "When You Say Nothing at All" — Alison Krauss (Original: Keith Whitley)
5. "Hallelujah" — Jeff Buckley (Original: Leonard Cohen)
6. "Me And Bobby McGee" — Janis Joplin (Original: Kris Kristofferson)
7. "The Man Who Sold the World" — Nirvana (Original: David Bowie)
8. "With A Little Help From My Friends"* — Joe Cocker (Original: The Beatles)
9. "What's So Funny (Bout Peace, Love and Understanding)" — Elvis Costello (Original: Nick Lowe)
10. "Gin and Juice" — The Gourds (Original: Snoop Dogg)
*Also with a little help from Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper. We can't discount their contributions to the popularity of the Cocker version.
Big Ugl(ies) of the Week
I typically choose just one lineman, but one group deserves special commendation for its improvement since last season. Heck, it deserves commendation for its improvement since earlier this month. Watching the Michigan offensive line in Saturday's 31–0 shutout of BYU, it was shocking to remember that four of those guys started on an offense that could barely move the ball last season. Jim Harbaugh and coordinator/line coach Tim Drevno have done an excellent job with this group, but the players themselves deserve credit for raising their level of play.
The line stats at Football Outsiders suggest the Wolverines had a middle-of-the-road to slightly-above-average run-blocking unit last year. They had a below-average pass-blocking unit. By the assessment of fifth-year senior center Graham Glasgow, Michigan's line was tentative early in its season-opening loss 24–17 at Utah before settling in the second half and getting more confident. Saturday, it was a joy to watch sophomore left tackle Mason Cole and senior left guard Ben Braden cave in BYU's defense on combo blocks. The pair works well together, and both players had a great sense for when one should slip off a double team and engage the nearest linebacker. The Wolverines averaged five yards a carry Saturday, and that number jumps to 5.5 after taking away two sacks of quarterback Jake Rudock. Meanwhile, the Wolverines communicated well on passing downs, picking up games and blitzes far better than they did last season.
So take a bow, Cole, Braden, Glasgow, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson. You've helped your team get much better, and you are the Big Uglies of the Week.
1. Matt Hayes of The Sporting News had an interesting thought after TCU survived a trip to Lubbock with a three-point win over Texas Tech.
Let's hope indeed. And let's hope that if TCU drops a game in the next few weeks—as Baylor did last year after beating TCU 61–58 on Oct. 11—the playoff selection committee remembers who won this game if TCU takes only one loss and if Texas Tech bounces back and rolls through the Big 12.
One of the strangest aspects of last year's playoff selection was the committee's insistence on keeping Baylor ranked behind TCU even though the teams had the same record and the Bears had the head-to-head win. That only made it more confusing—and infuriating for the Horned Frogs—when the committee correctly placed Baylor ahead of TCU in the final ranking. The committee had TCU slotted two spots ahead of Baylor the week before for reasons that were never adequately explained. Hopefully, the committee will afford the proper respect to head-to-head results the entire time in 2015. That should produce a more consistent ranking.
2. Read this quote, then guess the speaker and the team he is talking about.
"In my opinion, that was the best team we've played to this point of the season. Not only physically, but execution-wise."
That's from BYU's Bronco Mendenhall, and he's talking about the Michigan team that crushed the Cougars on Saturday. And while it isn't an unusual sentiment from a coach whose team just lost 31–0, it's pretty interesting because the Cougars lost a 24–23 contest to UCLA the week before and beat Boise State 35–24 the week before that. That's great company for a Michigan team that is still supposed to be rebuilding under Jim Harbaugh.
We knew Harbaugh could work miracles, as he turned Stanford from a conference doormat into a national contender. We didn't know he'd be able to work any this quickly at Michigan. The Wolverines still need to prove they can play at this level consistently, but it might be time to stop assuming Michigan will lose to Michigan State and Ohio State. These Wolverines are much, much better than last year's group. If they keep improving, they could make things very interesting in the Big Ten East.
3. Without much fanfare, West Virginia has turned into one of the most interesting teams in the Big 12. The Mountaineers clobbered Maryland 45–6 Saturday as quarterback Skyler Howard threw for four touchdowns and one of the nation's stingiest defenses intercepted five passes. That defensive performance was almost as good as West Virginia's 44–0 shutout of Georgia Southern to open the season. (Yes, West Virginia is supposed to beat Georgia Southern—but not like that. The Eagles averaged 45 points over their next three games.)
One of the best games on this year's Big 12 schedule comes this week when the Mountaineers face Oklahoma in Norman at noon Eastern. Apparently, the people who decide when to televise games haven't been paying attention to West Virginia. While those of us who live on the East Coast appreciate such an excellent matchup in the noon window, this one belongs in prime time.
4. Speaking of Maryland, it would be easy to assume Randy Edsall's days in College Park are numbered. But as Roman Stubbs of The Washington Post pointed out before the West Virginia game, Edsall has some powerful supporters and a $2.6 million buyout. That would be chump change for Maryland after a few more years in the Big Ten, but it could be problematic now.
That said, there is no excuse for the Terrapins to be this bad. Maryland should be Under Armour's version of Oregon, and winning should be easier than it has been in Eugene because the Terps sit in a far more fertile recruiting area. How many more times do the Turtles have to get shelled before Edsall's job is in jeopardy?
5. LSU running back Leonard Fournette was a rolling ball of butcher knives again Saturday, rushing for 244 yards with two touchdowns in a 34–24 win at Syracuse. He also sent this tweet before the game to honor the great backs in 'Cuse history.
6. Texas has been close to a breakthrough since making redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard the quarterback and Jay Norvell the primary play-caller, but another special teams gaffe cost the Longhorns on Saturday. Against Cal on Sept. 19, a missed extra point that would have forced overtime resulted in a 45–44 loss. Against Oklahoma State, a dropped punt snap allowed the Cowboys to kick a game-winning field goal and escape Austin with a 30–27 victory.
Longhorns fans can complain about the officials—and yes, we all appreciate the irony of Texas fans complaining about the Longhorns not getting calls—but if they can clean up their special teams, it may not matter which calls Texas gets or doesn't. At some point, Texas has to break through with a win—doing that this week against TCU would obviously be huge, but will be terribly difficult—but the Longhorns are on the correct path.
7. Your early leader for the Piesman Trophy is 300-pound Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, whose one-yard touchdown run in Saturday's win at Vanderbilt was his third of the season.
Don't know what the Piesman Trophy is? Read about it here. I'm a voter, mostly because I was told that I would get free pie at the ceremony in December.
8. With a 31–24 win at Wake Forest on Saturday, Indiana upped its record to 4–0. No, the Hoosiers haven't beaten anyone of consequence yet. But they're 4–0 for the first time since 1990.
A grassroots movement is afoot to get ESPN's College GameDay to come to Bloomington, but it has been about as successful as my continued effort to get T-Pain on as a guest picker instead of Kenny Chesney for the 74th time. GameDay is headed to Notre Dame-Clemson, and the Hoosiers host Ohio State on Saturday. So, improving to 5–0 could be a challenge.
9. What a difference a week makes …
10. After Auburn's 45–21 loss to LSU, we learned a little more than we ever wanted to know about Tammy, a regular caller on The Paul Finebaum Show. After this troll job from Mississippi State's football Twitter account following the Bulldogs' 17–9 win in Auburn on Saturday, Tammy's call Monday afternoon should be epic.
What's eating Andy?
I don't know if I made it clear enough in the first section of this column or in this story from a few weeks ago, but coaches, STOP PUNTING ON FOURTH-AND-TWO IN PLUS TERRITORY. You'll score more points and possibly win more games. Meanwhile, the games will be more interesting for those of us watching.
What's Andy eating?
If you've learned anything watching the Andy's Tailgate Test Kitchen videos we've been making this season, it's that my basset hound Lelu* usually has great taste. Sure, she occasionally eats garbage, but if you follow me on Twitter you know I do, too. Typically, Lelu's nose is spot on when begging for treats. She goes right for the best meat. So, when I visited The Branded Butcher in Athens, Ga., and saw a menu item that looked like something Lelu would love, I had to order it.
*Yes, I named my dog after Milla Jovovich's character in The Fifth Element. I don't care what Gary Oldman—who sincerely regrets playing villain Zorg—says. I love that movie, and will fight anyone who disagrees and take his Multipass. I also know I didn't spell Lelu the way the film did (Leeloo). That was a little too phonetic for my tastes.
Smack in the middle of the "Snacks" category on The Branded Butcher's menu, it just says "Pig Ears." I know from eating at The Purple Pig in Chicago that pretty much every part of the pig is delicious. I also know Lelu loves pig ears. So they must be good.
They were. The ears tasted like a juicier, more complex version of pork rinds. They would have been perfect for sopping up beer. They certainly were perfect for sopping up the North Woods, a concoction served up at the Butcher's bar that includes rye whiskey, sherry, walnut liqueur and baked apple bitters. I probably would have eaten five more orders of ears had the rest of the menu not looked so appetizing.
After the ears, I went for a more standard piece of the pig. A thick-cut pork chop was cooked medium rare and served atop a mix of pink-eyed peas, heirloom squash and house-cured bacon in a smoked pork jus. Fig mostarda—a condiment made of candied fig and mustard oil—sat on the bone-in chop. The sweetness of the mostarda mixed perfectly with the thick, juicy pork and the mélange of savory ingredients below. Between the ears and the chop, my carnivorous urges were satisfied. But my sweet tooth still required satisfaction.
Fortunately, The Branded Butcher's brown sugar ice cream surrounded by bourbon chocolate sauce, spiced caramel sauce, shortbread cookie bits, pretzel bites and candied pecans did the trick. Lelu was disappointed I didn't simply order more ears for dessert, but she was even angrier that I didn't bring home any leftovers.