Sunday, October 30, 2011

Stanford @ USC

I woke up on Saturday just in time to catch Corso flail around in the tree costume. I was somewhat disappointed as I had him picking SC to win at 3-1 but I loved the bet especially since the line moved to 2-1 shortly after I placed it. One thing I’ve learned from sports betting and poker is that you can’t be results orientated. One thing I’ve learned from sports is that no one cares about the quality of the decision - only the results. In a decision analysis seminar, David Shaw responded to my question about applying Moneyball-like statistical analysis to decision making in football by commenting that when you are judged purely on outcomes, job preservation is a consideration and you have to go with conventional wisdom unless you have the credibility of a Bill Belichick or Steve Spurrier. Sad but true, and completely rational on his part although hopefully one day he will have the credibility do so. Based on my anecdotal observations of fourth down decision making, I would say that Chip Kelly best personifies that screw the conventional wisdom, let’s increases our win probability mentality.

But I digress. The flight to LA went smoothly and I met former Stanford DB Chris Young who was proudly donning his Gator Bowl ring. Albert met me at the airport around noon and we picked up a car and headed straight to the Coliseum. First stop was the Nine-O bar where we met up with some LA-based folks. The bar had a nice selection of football games going on and a decent Stanford contingent. The next stop after some travel snafus was a transplanted Chuck Taylor Grove tailgate which had delicious appetizers, gracious hosts, great company and some potent alcohol affectionately known as Tonga. Next up was the alumni tailgate which was considerably larger than 2009 but lacked the Bowlsby address or band entrance although it’s completely possible that we just missed it. The ribs and grilled chicken were absolutely delicious. Finally, it was back to the first tailgate for a final cup of Tonga en route to the Coliseum – a place where I’ve been fortunate to have nothing but fond memories…

What a game! USC has definitely improved since their season opener when they struggled to beat Minnesota and full credit to our guys who persevered every time the game felt like it was slipping away. The atmosphere in the Coliseum was absolutely electric from the raucous USC student section swaying from side to side to the noise during 3rd downs to the unbridled joy in the Stanford section at the end of the third overtime. It was an amazing experience to be a part of and while the 2007 win was pretty memorable, this undoubtedly tops it for the sheer drama of triple overtime and the significance of the game. The last Stanford football overtime I remember was sophomore year when UCLA came back from 21 points down with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. I guess this makes up for it.

Now turning to some end game analysis, I thought Luck’s pick 6 was the next best thing that could have happened on that play other than a first down since it gave us the ball back instead of having to punt it and allow USC to run the clock down and kick a game winning field goal. Instead of throwing it, however, I think we should have run it on third and 3 and potentially gone for it on fourth down as well (although I doubt the latter is in Shaw’s playbook for obvious reasons). Even if we’d been stopped twice which I don’t think would have been too likely given the element of surprise and our running game’s success in short yardage situations, we would have been able to get the ball back with some time to work with down 3 or 7. As much as I like our defense, there’s no worse feeling than having your best player on the sidelines as the clock winds down with the score tied. In fact, I’d feel more comfortable with the score tied and the ball in Luck’s hand with 2 minutes left than up less than a touchdown with the same amount of time and our defense on the field.

The next break we got was the Fleener catch being ruled incomplete. Why we didn’t run it at second and 2 on the 4 yard line and instead burned 2 times outs befuddles me and is reminiscent of the games against Cal and Notre Dame in 2010 when we tried to score too quickly and give the opposing team time to march down the field. Perhaps the stigma surrounding letting the clock expire without getting a play off is so much greater than leaving time for the other team’s offense (since you can blame it on the defense or give credit to the other team’s offense) that coaches aggressively avoid the former. Fortunately, we managed to burn just enough clock that USC wasn’t able to attempt a field goal. Not sure why they didn’t use an additional time out earlier in the drive to save some clock or instruct Woods to go down. We definitely dodged a bullet on that one.

Not surprisingly, the only heat Shaw received about his decision making was the third and 8 wildcat play where we settled for the game tying field goal. While I didn’t like it too much either (a draw or QB keeper option would probably have worked much better given the element of surprise), it was not his worst play call by a long shot. It just went against the conventional wisdom that you need to have the ball in your best player’s hands. If anything, the decision to have Whitaker try directional kick offs and give USC great field position time and time again was much more detrimental.

At the end of the day, we’re at the point of the season where style points count for naught and winning is all that matters. We are not surpassing Oklahoma State in the BCS if both teams win out and Boise State is not going to edge us out either. Unfortunately, injuries are beginning to take their toll and hopefully we can get a couple of guys healthy before the Oregon showdown but injuries are part of the game and to be fair, Oregon has had its fair share and have a tougher upcoming game to boot. Finally, I’ll leave you with a parting shot of the Coliseum – the backdrop for some of the most memorable football moments I’ve had in my life.

1 comment:

Jon said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who had bigger problems with our play calling inside USC's 10 on our last drive in regulation than with the wildcat on 3rd and 8.

On 2nd and 2 from the 5-yard line, we should have ran the ball, ideally getting the first down but not the touchdown. We could have milked the play clock and ran the ball again on 1st and goal. If we didn't get the touchdown on that play, we could have used our final timeout.

Instead we THREW the ball, then burned the timeout. It's a darn good thing the pass to Fleener was called incomplete because it allowed us to use a little bit more of the game clock. If USC had taken possession with even one more second on the game clock, we'd ruefully calling the game Ayala 2.

Harbaugh did great things at Stanford, but his clock management was poor in several instances. I'm pleased with Shaw's performance as head coach, but the decision to pass on 2nd and 2 late on our final drive in regulation nearly cost us the game.

After all, it's all about process, not outcome. ;-)