COLLEGE STATION, TX - SEPTEMBER 24: Texas A&M Aggies head coach Mike Sherman during pre-game warmups before playing Oklahoma State at Kyle Field on September 24, 2011 in College Station, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
In a world where the word “genius” is thrown around all-too-often to describe men who wrote their college thesis on Dodgeball Strategy instead of Game Theory, we endeavor each week to understand the whimsy of the whistles and mine the brains of men who routinely wear visors in domes during night games.
This week, we join Mike Sherman and Texas A&M's coaching staff in a classic meltdown of the "Let's stop doing what was working just to see what happens?" variety while Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy contributes a mid-fourth quarter infusion of illogic guised as conventional wisdom to nearly throw the game for Oklahoma State.
You'll find some recurring themes we see every weekend in college football: the ready abandonment of successful game plans for no particular reason, the total inability of most coaches to accurately project time use within college football rules, general innumeracy, and a slavish adherence to received wisdom (Have lead, now run clock) over actual contextual understanding of game situations.
First, the A&M staff.
Offensively, the Aggies' key opening wrinkle featured athletic QB Ryan Tannehill as a running threat, with the A&M QB striding for an easy 65-yard TD run after an option fake to RB Cyrus Gray. The play was notable in that as it unfolded the entire Cowboy defense stood flat-footed mumbling,"THIS TACTIC WAS NOT IN OUR GAME PREPARATION AND WE RESPECTFULLY PROTEST ITS USE."
The Aggies rode the early score to confidence, momentum, and a clock-milking, ball-dominating blend of effective running and short passing. Tannehill had easy reads in play action, Oklahoma State's pass rush was non-existent as their DL and LBs honored run and option responsibilities, and a ballhawking Cowboy secondary couldn't cheat run or pass. Nor was A&M's rushing success a single play outlier. In the second quarter, the Aggie running backs combined for 10 carries for 79 yards with a long run of 18 yards. It was a consistent gouging.
Most crucially, beyond 20 points on the board and 301 yards of balanced first-half offense (154 passing, 147 rushing), the Aggies' control of the ball meant a scant five first-half possessions for an Oklahoma State offense that needs rhythm and reps to find their groove.
The Aggie defense -- fueled by rest, long periods of between-every-series coaching, and favorable field position -- bent but didn't break, pressured Weeden, and had OSU WR Justin Blackmon throwing sideline tantrums.
20-3, Aggies. Almost too easy. Before it all fell apart at halftime.
Dance with who brung ya? Absolutely not. Mike Sherman thinks that's BORING. He decided to foxtrot with the unknown. With OSU changing nothing in their defense, A&M eschewed their brilliantly balanced first-half game plan for an undisguised passing game into the teeth of OSU's best defensive talent -- their secondary.
The Aggies were rewarded with three turnovers in the third quarter, all in the passing game (two interceptions and a fumble), ran only 11 offensive plays (eight of them pass calls), experienced pressure and hits on Tannehill as OSU's DEs realized they could line up in track stances, and watched OSU take a 24-20 lead into the fourth quarter.
On defense, the Aggies resorted to flopping like an Italian soccer team to slow OSU's 275-yard, 21-point third-quarter explosion, but the most troubling dive came from the headsets. A&M Defensive Coordinator Tim DeRuyter is generally top notch, but the outmatched Aggie secondary was betrayed by a defensive coaching staff that couldn't get signals in on time, didn't punish Oklahoma State's QB for empty set backfields, and couldn't solve the mystery of Weeden flipping the ball to the Cowboy receivers at the line of scrimmage and letting them run for 11 yards.
A loss of composure had traveled through Maroon head sets and infected every staff member, in some macabre game of incompetent viral telephone. And it all began with the simple idea of abandoning everything (running threat QB, running game, easy play-action) that gave A&M a 17-point halftime lead.
In the game's defining third quarter, Weeden went 22 of 27 for 230 yards and two TDs tossing fast-tempo screens to Anyiam, Blackmon, and Cooper (they'd finish with a combined 32 receptions for 336 yards). That led to touchdown drives of 80, 89, and 56 yards, respectively, and, in the final quarter, OSU added six more points on field goals despite Justin Blackmon's unforced fumble touchback.
The bottom line: By attacking on offense and defense, the Cowboys outscored A&M 34-0 through one and a half quarters of play. Defensively, the Cowboys dominated the Aggies by bringing pressure up front, turning over a now one-dimensional Aggie offense, and by challenging the Aggie WRs in coverage.
Oklahoma State was now going to win the game going away.
Enter the Cowboy coaching staff. Enter conventional wisdom.
Naturally, up 30-20 with 7:13 left in the game, Oklahoma State DC Bill Young abandoned the defensive play calls that had yielded three turnovers and two punts in A&M's previous five possessions and dropped eight defenders into a soft zone defense meant to allow a score, but burn clock.
Apparently, 7:13 is the new 1:13.
Aside from the absurdity of blindly honoring the "have lead, must run clock" mantra, it's apparent that many college coaches have no concept of how much time 7:13 actually is (hint: LOTS) or how quickly most teams score in college football (hint: pretty quickly). The Aggies still had 2 time outs, first downs freeze the clock as they move chains, and there are white lines on the sides of the field that if you can get across, you're awarded with a time stoppage.
Here's an idea: keep doing the things that put you on a 34-0 run?!?
Instead, the OSU soft zone escorted A&M down the field 80 yards in just over 4:00 with the Aggies never having to use a time out.
Unlike many empirical sorts, I do believe in momentum and OSU lost theirs. So Young's defensive choice wasn't just an objectively bad decision -- it scored low on touchy-feely metrics too.
A&M opted for a conventional kick off (which was wise -- plenty of time left), and OSU, no longer the aggressor, with A&M's defense having had their first rest and extended sideline coaching of the second half, immediately goes three and out while only taking 33 seconds off of the clock due to two judicious A&M time outs and two Cowboy passing attempts. At this point, the OSU staff isn't even on the same page. Are we burning clock or aren't we? Punt.
Texas A&M now had the ball on their 34-yard line, down three, with 1:47 left on the clock. An eternity. It's their game to win or tie.
Oklahoma State Defensive Coordinator Bill Young rushes three on the next two snaps but their zone goes from let 'em catch it and tackle to squatting on routes as they had in the five possessions pre-prevent and, not surprisingly, cornerback Brodrick Brown clinches the game with an interception. The Cowboys run out the remaining clock with the help of the proper use of an intentional safety, moving their End of Game Management grade from a F to a solid D-.
So the question remains: who was the real loser in this wildly entertaining, logic-defying contest? Texas A&M?