Sunday, November 4, 2012

Louisiana St. 17 - 21 Alabama (Final)

When I was a kid, back in the late 1970's, my brother and I had a wonderful tabletop football game called NFL Strategy.  It was possibly the nerdiest sports game ever made.  In NFL Strategy, two players would play a game of football -- but each players' team had the exact same amount of talent as the other.  To win, you needed a combination of good strategy and luck.  On every play, you would choose your play -- offense or defense -- and your opponent would do the same.  Then the two plays would be matched against each other and a random element would decide exactly what happened.  You were rewarded for picking plays that would work very well against the other side's chosen play.  For example, if you called a draw and the defense was in a basic set, you would probably be stopped after only a few yards.  But if you called a draw and the defense called a blitz, you would do really well and might even go for a touchdown.

As a kid, I loved the notion that football was basically a form of chess -- that the real heroes of the game weren't the players (who were totally fungible in NFL Strategy) but the guys calling plays.  By anticipating the pattern from the other side -- and calling plays that would take advantage of that pattern -- you could become a football maven.  It certainly seemed a lot easier than learning to block or tackle.

As time went on, however, the rise of fantasy football meant that the focus of nerdy fans shifted from play-calling to general manager-type stuff.  Guys my age might still long to call for 37 Blast or the Maximum Blitz, but these days most fans are more focused on picking up that all-important third receiving option, or figuring out which rookie quarterback is going to the Hall of Fame.  The same thing has happened with college football as well -- the time once spent thinking about whether your team should run the Wishbone or the Veer is now devoted to the latest recruiting news.  I can understand this change -- guys like Mel Kiper successfully argued that talent is more important than tactics, and football history seems to bear them out.

But sometimes, a big-time football game can turn on exactly the type of play-calling chess match called for by NFL Strategy.  Take yesterday's showdown in Baton Rouge, Louisiana between the number 1 Alabama Crimson Tide and the number 5 LSU Tigers.  To me, this was the most important game of this season so far -- and it may turn out to have been the most important game of the season, period.  It was a hugely emotional game for both teams, who were facing each other in a rematch of their two titanic struggles from last year -- and who probably had to win or say goodbye to any chance at the 2012 National Title.

In the first half, Alabama's defense was rock-solid, and they put together two good drives to take a 14-3 halftime lead.  But LSU is almost impossible to beat at home, and for most of the second half they simply overwhelmed Alabama.  The Crimson Tide couldn't get anything going on offense, while LSU had two great drives of its own to take a 17-14 lead with 12:58 to go.  The fans in Baton Rouge were going nuts, but down the stretch LSU was in the wrong play on too many occasions, and it eventually cost them the game.

Here's what happened.  With 8:41 to go and facing a 4th and 1 on the Alabama 24, LSU faced a classic NFL Strategy-type dilemma:  kick the field goal or go for it?  LSU's coach, Les Miles, who is famously known for his gambling style decided to go for it.  Furthermore, he decided that instead of using his regular offense -- which had been very effective throughout the half -- he would spring a Wildcat-type offense on Alabama, with a running back taking a direct snap.  If it had worked, LSU could have put the game away -- but it didn't.  The running back bobbled the snap, Alabama stuffed the play, and LSU's lead stayed at 17-14.

But LSU stopped Alabama and took over on its own 19 with 7:40 to go.  Zach Mettenberger, the LSU quarterback -- who tormented Alabama in the second half -- drove the Tigers down the field:

3d and 6 at the LSU 23 (6:44 left):  Mettenberger to Jarvis Landry for 13 yards.
3d and 6 at the LSU 40 (4:38 left):  Mettenberger to Jeremy Hill for 7 yards.
2d and 11 at the LSU 46 (2:34 left):  Mettenberger to Odell Beckham for 22 yards.

Two plays later, LSU faced a 3d and 10 at the Alabama 32 with 2:15 left.  Another big decision:  try a pass for the first down, or run to set up a field goal.  I thought LSU would pass, as Mettenberger had been unstoppable, but they ran instead, settling for a 45-yard field goal.  But the kick was wide to the left, and now Alabama took over on its own 28 with only 88 seconds to go.

At this point, Alabama had no points in the second half, and only 93 passing yards for the game.  LSU's backs had done a great job covering the Tide receivers, and Alabama's quarterback -- A.J. McCarron -- had been throwing high all night.  But now LSU decided to play it safe, and concede some ground to avoid giving up the big play.  McCarron quickly took advantage:

1st and 10 at the Ala 28 (1:28 left):  McCarron to Kevin Norwood for 18 yards
1st and 10 at the Ala 46 (1:19 left):  McCarron to Norwood for 15 yards
1st and 10 at the LSU 39 (1:11 left):  McCarron to Norwood for 11 yards

Suddenly Alabama was at the LSU 28 with a minute to play.  McCarron went to Norwood again, but this time the pass was incomplete.  Still, the Tide was in field goal range.

And at this point, LSU decided to switch back to an aggressive defense -- they called a blitz, no doubt hoping to drive Alabama out of field goal range.  But in a classic NFL Strategy-type move, Alabama had called a screen play:

2d and 10 at the LSU 28 (0:51 left):  McCarron to T.J. Yeldon for 28 yards.  TOUCHDOWN

After the game, on ESPN, Mark May and Lou Holtz vehemently argued about Les Miles's actions.  May, the former player, believed that Miles's stupid play-calling had taken away a victory that his players had earned.  Holtz, the former coach, argued that Miles deserved enormous credit for putting his team in such a strong position to win.  Personally, I think Holtz has the better of that argument.  For 59 minutes, Miles's team looked tougher, more disciplined and better-prepared than Alabama, and that is a remarkable achievement.  On the other hand, those 59 minutes will be small comfort to the LSU fans who will remember Yeldon's final dash to the end zone through an almost empty Tiger backfield.

But guys like Les Miles and Nick Saban play for very high stakes -- not just for money (and they're both multi-millionaires anyway), but for glory and honor and history.  Sometimes that means you get embarrassed in public.  Sometimes that means you are the victim of unfair criticism.  That's the price of chasing greatness.

1 comment:

  1. How would the blitz line up against the X screen, I think that's what it was called.