Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
23 Nov 2009
by Robert Weintraub
Three years ago, I attended the Ole Miss-LSU game in Death Valley, courtesy of the great Dr. Lou Levin, the uncle of my editor at Slate, Josh Levin. It was a classic night game at Tiger Stadium, LSU struggled to an overtime victory, and everyone had a good time. Actually, that's not true -- the dozen or so season ticket holders with whom I made the trip and tailgated had a surprisingly intense disdain for coach Les Miles. Keep in mind, the win gave the Tigers a 9-2 record, and LSU went on to crush Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, which propelled them to a BCS championship the following year. Nevertheless, Miles was held in low regard. I wrote it off as typical SEC dissatisfaction with anything but an unbeaten team that wins every game by three touchdowns.
Now I know what they were talking about.
Simply put, Miles' (and his staff's) endgame ineptitude in Oxford Saturday was epic, and if the stakes were higher (say, if LSU had been unbeaten), it would have been a sackable offense.
A quick recap -- LSU trailed by eight with about 90 seconds left. The Bayou Bengals picked on Rebels corner Marshay Green all day, and Marshay stood up to the attention. But now, Rueben Randle suckered him on a hitch and go, and quarterback Jordan Jefferson hit Randle with a 25-yard touchdown pass. With their top two backs out with injuries, LSU had to throw a fade pass on the two-point play, and it fell incomplete.
Down by two, LSU then recovered an onside kick, a strange one that never took the high hop and skipped along the ground cutting worms. With 26 seconds left, LSU completed a short pass, and, according to Miles, called time out. But the referees either never heard him, Miles wasn't nearly demonstrative enough with the signal, or the refs ignored him because they want Florida and Alabama to be undefeated going into the conference title game. OK, maybe not that last one.
So 19 precious seconds ticked away before the timeout was granted. Bad, but just wait. Down to only a Hail Mary, Jefferson failed to reach the end zone -- but WR Terrance Toliver somehow came down with at the Rebels 6-yard line. There was a single second left, and the clock stopped to move the chains (college football's best rule).
As Dr. Levin and all of the Cajun Riviera screamed at Miles to run in the field goal team for a hurried but easy kick, LSU inexplicably lined up to spike the ball. Of course, the clock restarted when the chains were set, and it's impossible to spike the ball without any time runoff. Victory, Ole Miss, 25-23.
How Miles didn't have his team prepared for that situation defies belief. Sure, they probably didn't expect the Hail Mary to be caught in the field of play, but that's why Miles makes almost $4 million a year -- to be ready for the unexpected.
Houston Nutt, whose early season misuse of Dexter McCluster qualifies him for the same bad coaching wing of the Hall of Shame Miles occupies, was so flabbergasted with the win he almost knocked the microphone from sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson's hand, before molesting her and jogging off. Billy Cannon's fabled punt return seems more distant than ever after this one.
Speaking of poor coaching -- Charlie Weis, everybody! His travails are pretty well documented, but it should be noted that losing in overtime to UConn, a tough, hard-nosed squad playing with passion for a fallen teammate, isn't nearly as bad as going down to a different Big East basketball power, Syracuse, last season. But it was great drama. After seemingly every play, the NBC director cut to Weis, as the pendulum swung between Charlie's imminent firing and him saving his job for another week. Fumble by the Irish in its own territory late in the game -- cut to Weis, he's gone! Winning touchdown overturned by penalties on back-to-back plays -- cut to Weis, he's coming back! Huskies score in overtime -- cut to Weis, see ya, buddy! Notre Dame ties it -- cut to Weis, you can't kill this guy! UConn finally wins it, 33-30 in double overtime -- cut to Weis, waddling off the field, and into oblivion.
Weis, of course, is one of those innumerable withered branches that fell off the Bill Belichick tree. The Belichick "To Go Or Not To Go For It" controversy continues in other precincts of this Web site, but a different New England coach went Belichick times eleven in the Harvard-Yale classic. Leading 10-7 with about 2:30 to play, Yale faced a fourth and 22. Proving that one can coach at Yale with a Community College degree, Tom Williams called for a fake punt, one involving a reverse no less. Needless to say, it came up well short. The Crimson responded immediately with a touchdown pass from Peyton Man ... er, Collier Winters, to win the game 14-10. By the way, Collier Winters -- what a perfect name for the Harvard quarterback! Williams' decision probably won't lead "Pardon The Interruption," but then he doesn't have the genius rep Belichick does -- for good reason, apparently.
It wasn't quite as memorable as "Harvard Defeats Yale 29-29," but those raccoon coat-wearing, sloe gin fizz-sipping Cambridge elites will be talking about this one for some time nonetheless.
(Side note -- throughout the first quarter, large swaths of the Yale Bowl remained empty. This is the fabled Harvard-Yale rivalry? But sure enough, by the time of the denouement, the place was packed. I guess they know a little something about tailgating in the Ivy League.)
Unlike Yale's head coach, Stanford's Jim Harbaugh was being mentioned as an impending "genius," thanks to immense wins over Oregon and USC. But in "The Big Game," against arch-rival Cal in Palo Alto, some of that brilliance wicked off Harbaugh. Down by three late in the game, Harbaugh too elected to go for a fourth and 8 deep in his own terrain, rather than punt. Stanford had all three timeouts left but chose to go for the long odds. Fail. Instead, Harbaugh handed the Golden Bears an easy three points. That proved critical when Stanford drove into the red zone with seconds to play, but needed to go for the touchdown. Quarterback Andrew Luck ran out of, well ... luck, and tossed a pick that sealed defeat.
Cardinal back Toby Gerhart plowed for four more touchdowns in the game. Put him in the "send him a ticket to New York" category, along with C.J. Spiller. But the back on the other sideline, Shane Vereen, was no "Chicken George" when it came to replacing injured Jahvid Best (too obscure a reference?). Vareen hauled the mail 42 times for 193 yards and three scores. More importantly, Vareen allowed Cal to keep the ball away from Gerhart. The Bears ripped off drives of 70, 62, 85, 92, 72, and 72 yards, scoring on five of them. My stepsister Jill, a Berkeley grad who was in the house for "The Play" and got married on Cal's campus, was happier than Uncle Lou, that's for sure.
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30 comments, Last at 24 Nov 2009, 3:59pm by Jeff Fogle