PLAY'S THE THING
The topic of discussion throughout Huskerland this week in wake of the Huskers' 17-14 loss to Auburn in the Cotton Bowl, has been Bill Callahan's play calling-opting late in the game to go for a first down instead of attempting a field goal that would have tied the game and more puzzling-according to many-was calling for a fake punt in the second quarter of the game.
To be sure, not since Tom Osborne's decision to go for two in the '84 Orange Bowl has a Husker football play received so much criticism and attention as Bill Callahan's call for a fake punt that was fumbled and subsequently led to an easy Auburn touchdown that put the Tigers ahead 14-7 in the second quarter.
HOME OF THE BRAVE
In '84, Coach Osborne received the respect of much of the college football world for his "brave" decision to eschew the PAT in the waning seconds that would have tied the game (there was no overtime back then), and would have given Osborne his first undefeated season and would have likely given the 12-0-1 Huskers their first national championship. As every Husker fan knows, the double extra point try failed and the Huskers suffered (in my view) the most painful loss in Husker history. In '83, it was the only loss in a 12-1 season.
THE DEFENSE RESTS
But unlike Osborne, no one seems to be rushing to defend Callahan for his fake punt decision in Monday's loss to the Tigers-despite the fact that both calls contributed to Husker bowl losses.
Okay, so now I'm going to get a ton of email telling me to take a hike because (in their view) the two plays are totally different. Osborne's decision, they will say, was "courageous" because he wanted to win the game-he didn't want to back into a national championship. It just wouldn't be right. Huh? Back into a national championship? I don't think too many Husker fans would have been upset with a 12-0-1 undefeated, national championship season. (Osborne, by the way would have to wait until '94 and coach over 100 more football games before he would win his first national championship.)
On the other hand, Callahan's call, as many see it, was stupid, arrogant and boneheaded. The fake punt backfired, turned the momentum to the Tigers and ultimately was the difference in a 17-14 loss to Auburn. Should Bill Callahan have made the call? Probably not, but hindsight is always crystal clear.
Callahan's rolling the dice backfired-no question, but (and I realize, that like Rosie O'Donnell's, it's a big but) had the play worked, Andrew Shanle would still be running. There was no one on his side of the field. It was a surprise attack-a scheme designed to get the Tigers off balance in what the coaches knew would be a very, very tight game.
Let's look at some other "bonehead" calls that were made in two of this year's bowl games.
The Sun Bowl (Missouri-Oregon State)
The Oregon State Beavers (I still cringe when I write that) trailed by 14 points with 12:08 to go in their game with Missouri. OSU came back with scores with 6:02 to go and with 23 seconds to go in the game, the Beavers scored again. But instead of going for the "sure" PAT that would have likely sent the game into OT, Oregon State head coach Mike Riley decided to go for broke. The run was good, giving the Beevs a remarkable come from behind 39-38 win.
But tell me how stupid that call would have been had the runner been stopped? How dumb would that have been? Riley's "bonehead" call would have been the laughing stock of ESPN for weeks. But it worked. Timing is everything. Missouri was caught napping. What a genius Mike Riley is...
The Fiesta Bowl (Boise State-Oklahoma)
In what may go down as one of the most exciting college bowl games ever, Boise State did the unthinkable-they beat the mighty Oklahoma Sooners (with Adrian Peterson) in OT 43-42.
Let's look at a couple of key plays.
Late in the game, after the Sooners had tied it at 28 with 1:26 to go in regulation, Bronco head coach Chris Petersen following the ensuing kickoff, opted to have his quarterback Jared Zabransky toss a pass deep in Bronco territory. Zabransky's poorly thrown pass was intercepted by Sooner DB Marcus Walker and returned for a 33 yard touchdown.
What a bonehead call that was! Why not try some safe running plays, burn some clock, punt if you don't pick up a first down and head for OT? Dumb call. How arrogant.
But wait, there's more
After another miracle (a hook and ladder play that was reminiscent of when the Sooners used it to beat the Huskers) Boise State tied the game and sent it into OT. After a quick strike by the Sooners' Adrian Peterson, the Broncos scored again pulling them within a point of the Sooners.
Instead of going for the "sure" extra point kick, Coach Petersen did the unthinkable. The Broncos went for two. The play was good, the Broncos won the game, beat one of the top football teams in the country and ended their season with a perfect 13-0 record.
But what if that play hadn't worked? What if the Broncos' Ian Johnson would have been stopped short? How stupid, arrogant and boneheaded would that call have been? Chris Petersen would be the goat-the fool this week and for months to come. Why would anybody make such a dumb call with the game on the line? Kick the extra point, for gawd's sake and take your chances in double OT.
My point with all this is, there is a fine line between genius and stupidity. You're brilliant when it works and when it doesn't, well, ask Bill Callahan how he feels.
A SEASON TO REMEMBER
The Huskers have every reason to hold their heads high after this season. There has been significant improvement this year-in our running game, total offense, offensive line, defense (I know, at times we looked pretty inept-see Oklahoma State). We played nine teams that played in bowl games, four Top Ten teams and ended up with a Big 12 North title, earned a trip to Kansas City to play for the conference championship and played in a post December bowl game for the first time since 2001.
The only game I felt we were outclassed in was at USC. The rest of the games were winnable. In our last two losses, Kevin Cosgrove's Blackshirts played excellent, inspired defense. I don't know if it can be said that the loss to Auburn was Cosgrove's signature defensive game, but the man can coach. Thanks, coach. Thanks very much.
It's just too bad that in his last two games-the two biggest games of his Husker career, Zac Taylor came up short. But we will miss Zac for his character, leadership, resilience, guts and determination. As I've said before, we may not see the likes of him again for a very long time. Good luck Zac in whatever you do.
PLAY'S THE THING