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As in Boise, A Failure to Stick to the Script

It’s not fair. How could it be? Two of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history – not now, but ever – were done in by inadequate kicking, first Kellen Moore, then Andrew Luck, and that’s not fair. Yeah, it’s a team game. And yeah, touchdowns trump field goals. But sloppy kicking doomed Moore and Boise State in the regular season, spoiling one final push for a national title, and sloppy kicking doomed Luck and the Cardinal last night, spoiling his final game on the college level. And it gets worse.

Both were sent home thanks to botched coaching decisions. Think back to November, when the Broncos lost at home to T.C.U., 36-35. Now consider the waning moments in regulation in last night’s Fiesta Bowl, when the Cardinal could have stamped home a narrow win by being aggressive, not conservative.

In each game – the two biggest games on each team’s schedule – a failure to stick to the script meant the difference between victory and defeat. In Boise, Chris Petersen opted to play it safe: Moore drove the Broncos 38 yards in a minute, leading the offense from its own 40 to the T.C.U. 22, before Petersen called off the dogs.

It’s been two months: Petersen’s head-scratching decision remains the worst moment of his otherwise brilliant coaching career. And it remains nonsensical, considering that Petersen – unlike Stanford’s David Shaw – had been through the fire, had been to the B.C.S., had been game-tested, yet made a foolish decision to move away from the aggressiveness that led him and his team to that point.

With the time remaining on the clock, not to mention one remaining timeout, Boise had two options: one, to take perhaps two shots to the end zone; or two, to take a chance at gaining another handful of yards to give Dan Goodale a slightly easier field goal attempt. Instead, Petersen had Moore take a knee in the middle of the field, leaving Goodale – who was poor all season – with a 39-yard attempt.

Shaw walked in the same footsteps. How it came down: with 52 seconds left, Luck finds Jeremy Stewart for a 25-yard gain down to the Oklahoma State 25. The Cowboys call timeout. On 1st-10 from the 25, Stanford hands off to Stepfan Taylor, who gains six yards down to the 19. On 2nd-4, Taylor gains two yards to the 17.

Timeout, Stanford, stopping the clock with three seconds left. Oklahoma State follows with a timeout of its own, hoping to ice Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson – not to jump ahead, but mission accomplished. Williamson yanked the 35-yard try to the left, maintaining the 38-38 tie and sending the Fiesta Bowl to overtime.

Petersen and Shaw: one growing legend, one rookie, both of whom suffered the same error of judgment. It’s a failure to trust what got each coach to this point; being aggressive, rolling the dice is what put Petersen on the map, beginning with his coming-out party against Oklahoma in his first B.C.S. bowl.

How did Shaw get Stanford into the Fiesta Bowl? By putting the pieces on the board – getting the ball into his stars’ hands – and getting out of the way. Shaw did little wrong in 2011, his first year as Jim Harbaugh’s replacement, but let’s be honest: Luck had as much to do with Stanford’s 11-1 regular season as anyone, including Shaw. Yet Shaw, with the Fiesta Bowl in the balance, took the ball out of Luck’s hands and placed it onto the foot of his sophomore kicker, Williamson, who responded in familiar fashion.

Quibble with Shaw’s late-game negligence, which nearly cost Stanford a win at U.S.C. in late October – it was buffoonery, though Shaw’s foibles were swept under the rug thanks to the Cardinal’s overtime win – but last night wasn’t about simple clock mismanagement. It was, however, about a rookie coach still learning the ropes.

Perhaps Shaw grows with time; here’s betting the house that he does, actually. Shaw simply fell into the same error pool that claimed Petersen and Boise two months ago: it’s better to play it safe than take a chance, as playing it safe prevents the chance at – here comes the cringe from coaches at all levels – being second-guessed.

That’s the greatest fear of any coach, and it’s the reason why Shaw, or Petersen, opted to ignore a year’s worth of knowledge and keep things vanilla. For Petersen, playing it vanilla meant calling on his woebegone kicker with the game on the line, even if Goodale – or any other member of Boise’s parade of kickers – had done nothing in 2011 to justify the opportunity.

For Shaw, playing it safe meant taking the ball out of his superstar’s hands with the game in the balance. Consider this: Oklahoma State started its possession in the second overtime, needing only a field goal, at the Stanford 25. Did you think for one minute that Mike Gundy was going to run the ball into the middle of the Stanford line three times before calling on his kicker?

Not a chance – and that’s with the superb Quinn Sharp kicking, not the untested Williamson. Oklahoma State stuck with what got them to this point: the Cowboys danced the same dance that got them to the Fiesta Bowl. The end result? O.S.U. 41, Stanford 38.

I’m sure Shaw, like Petersen, learned a valuable lesson. But for Shaw, like Petersen, it came at the cost of a loss in his team’s biggest game of the season. Unfortunately, the one painful loss is the final memory we’ll carry for each program’s once-in-a-lifetime quarterback.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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  1. Lee says:

    If you play not to lose….you lose.

    Just ask Mark Richt.

    Good article Paul.

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