Bowl season got off to a great start on Saturday when Colorado State scored 18 unanswered points in the final three minutes of play to stun Washington State 48-45 in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
As a side note, this game has been must-see TV recently. Last year, Arizona erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to edge Nevada 49-48. This means that, over the past two seasons, there have been 190 combined points scored in the New Mexico Bowl and a combined margin of victory of four points.
Like I said, must-see TV.
Instead of an epic comeback, however, college football fans are discussing the epic collapse of Mike Leach’s Cougars. Wazzu had every chance in the world to put the game on ice, yet seemed intent on keeping the game alive for the Rams right until the final horn sounded.
Leach’s playcalling down the stretch seemed masochistic in nature, as he repeatedly asked his players to move the football when it was entirely unnecessary. The result was a pair of fumbles—and another one that was overturned after a review—that gave Colorado State the ball back twice in excellent scoring range.
It wasn’t so much the playcalling that has irked people, but it’s seemingly more about the mentality with which Leach approached the final drive. With an eight-point lead and 2:49 to play when they took the ball, the Cougars needed to convert only one first down to get the win since Colorado State had two timeouts to burn.
Leach saw his team convert on 3rd-and-6, stopping the clock with 2:31 remaining. With Colorado State out of timeouts and a 40-second play clock, simply kneeling the ball three times would burn more than two minutes of game time before a fourth down play would be necessary. Assuming about five or six seconds between the snap and the official reset of the play clock, the Cougars would probably have to punt with around 15 seconds left.
In that scenario, Colorado State would have to drive the length of the field, score, and go for a two-point conversion just to tie the game—and do it all in 15 seconds. It was an obvious call in such a high-scoring game, yet Leach defied all logic.
His first play call was a zone read play in which quarterback Connor Halliday kept the ball. He shouldn’t have even had the option to keep, but even then, it’s not worth risking the ball getting knocked free. In fact, that’s exactly what happened, although the fumble was overturned.
You might think the first fumble might have scared Leach straight, but undeterred, he called another running play on second down (with several seconds still on the play clock, I might add). This time, it was an actual fumble recovered by Colorado State. The Rams cashed it in, Statue-of-Liberty’d their way to a two-point conversion, and tied the game.
In summary, after converting what should have been the game-clinching first down, Washington State ran only 40 more seconds off the clock on two total plays before that turnover.
Overtime seemed likely, but Washington State just had to return the kickoff. Fumble, recovery, field goal, ball game.
On ESPN, Robert Smith blasted Leach in his postgame comments, taking him to task over a reckless approach to the final drive. What struck me most about Smith’s statement was his acknowledgement that Washington State’s philosophy directly drove each decision down the stretch. The maverick pirate persona Leach has garnered over the years was on display, and it failed.
Leach is being singled out right now, but this is a consistent problem in coaching. The “do what we do” philosophy—also known as “this is who we are” or “this is our identity—in sports is admirable when it works, but it is downright fireable when it doesn’t. Many a coach has gone to his grave trumpeting this mantra when his personnel shouted for a different direction.
Don’t get me wrong. I love it when people stand by their convictions. But a coach’s job is to win football games, and when identity stands between a team and certain victory, many leaders fall on the sword—or throw the team under the bus—just to protect a personal or program brand.
That doesn’t mean the brand is bad or flawed. For sure, Leach’s brash bravado led Texas Tech’s program to great heights and memorable victories (how about the risky sideline pass to Michael Crabtree with the clock winding down against Texas in prime time with the whole season on the line that ended up being the game-winning touchdown?). The guy is doing it again at Wazzu, and it’s a good brand of football that works.
It just doesn’t work all the time, in all circumstances, in all games.
One could make the argument Chad Morris did the same thing when he called a wide receiver pass during a dynamite opening drive against South Carolina when conventional plays were working just fine. Being aggressive and taking shots was seemingly valued more than riding a successful wave into the end zone.
Morris’ offense is particular, and Clemson has reaped the benefits of his system being in place in the vast majority of games over the past three seasons. It just didn’t work right then, in that spot, in that game.
I know it sounds like I’m bashing Morris, but it’s much more prevalent than these two situations. This is a common theme in coaching, one that sounds ridiculous when you put it into context with everyday life.
Sometimes, situations call for something different. I’m a fast driver, but I can’t just go 60 in a 25 because “that’s just who I am”. Jadeveon Clowney, pay attention: That defense won’t fly in court.
If a road closes on my daily route, I can’t just barge through construction cones because “that’s the way I always go”. There are just some times when the option we prefer isn’t the best option available, so we have to adjust and move forward.
Mike Leach deserves the criticism he has received over the weekend. Sadly, though, he’s not the only one who turns a winning identity into a losing one on occasion.