Usually, a variation of the term found in my title is reserved for pundits second-guessing the previous day’s NFL games (especially when all but the Monday Night game were still on Sundays) — but rather than focus on any NFL game, I wanted to focus on the college football game I watched on New Year’s Day: The Rose Bowl.
Looking at the box score, it looked like a good game, a close game, in which Michigan State grinded out a win against Stanford. But watching it, I had a different sense. Put simply: when Stanford had the ball, it was one of the poorest examples of play-calling I’ve ever seen.
I know, everyone says that when their team loses. But that’s the thing: Stanford isn’t my team. I enjoy watching them now for a few good reasons (girlfriend is an alum, proximity to where I live, and respect for what the program has been able to accomplish), but I don’t really care if they win or lose in the same way I care when Michigan wins or loses.1
Anyway, I simply could not believe my eyes as Stanford ran seemingly the same play over and over and over again. A running play. Right up the middle. The results did vary, but really only between a gain of one to two yards or a loss of one to two yards.
I know that Stanford loves to play “old school” and runs the ball more than just about any team this side of the 1970s. And I know they have a really good running back. But I also know what I saw. After a large gain early in the game, Michigan State’s defensive line absolutely eliminated Stanford’s running game.
It was like watching a game of rock-paper-scissors where one side keeps throwing “rock” hoping that eventually the other side will be fooled. Yet Michigan State threw “paper” every single time.
And so a game which Stanford seemed to have in control early on, ended in the most anti-climatic way imaginable. They didn’t wear down the Michigan State defense, they wore down us, the viewers. And they lost, with a wimper.
Stanford’s coach, David Shaw, seems to get a lot of shit on Twitter (at least amongst some Stanford loyalists I follow). But there’s no denying that the program has been successful under his watch, building off the miraculous turnaround (former Michigan quarterback and current 49ers head coach) Jim Harbaugh pulled off before him. But this one game alone, in my mind, is inexcusable. Stanford could have won, they simply chose not to.
I think about these types of coaching decisions a lot when watching sports. Most coaches seem to go “by the book” and often as a result, linger in mediocrity. In contrast, the coaches who take chances are either heroes or fired. But I’m honestly not sure how to categorize Shaw’s decision to do the same thing over and over and over again. It wasn’t really “by the book” (the opponent has stopped your running game, so you should try passing, ideally play-action) but it was almost the opposite of taking a chance.
All it was, really, was the definition of insanity.
If anything, you could probably make a better argument that I’m biased against Michigan State, one of Michigan’s main rivals. But as a Big Ten guy, I’m supposed to root for any of our teams playing against another conference, no? Okay, except Ohio State. I could never root for Ohio State. ↩