One of the toughest decisions a coach will make is when to step on the gas, and when to back off. This skill - this art - is something that great coaches have talked about at length. Knowing when to go for the kill shot, when to play it safe, and when to let things ride can be the difference between wins and losses.
Coaching immortals such as Joe Paterno, Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian, Bill Walsh, Nick Saban, and Urban Meyer, to name a few, have written and spoken about the importance of this very idea. Two weeks in to the 2022 season, we can look at and dissect the process - the art - of the decision making process that went into two key moments.
Week 0 - The Onside Kick
After an Anthony Grant 46-yard touchdown run at the nine minute mark in the third quarter to put Nebraska up 28-17, Husker head coach Scott Frost made an aggressive call by going for the onside kick.
On the onside attempt, Nebraska kicker Brendan Franke hard squibbed the onside kick giving no opportunity for the Huskers to recover. The great field position gave Northwestern the momentum and five plays later scored a touchdown and closed the gap to 28-24, with the Wildcats going on to win the game 31-28..
What was the "Art of the Decision?"
Coming out of halftime, Nebraska quickly erased their three-point halftime deficit, scoring touchdowns on consecutive drives.
It's important to remember that up to this point in his career at Nebraska, 20 of Scott Frost's 29 losses have come by one possession or less. Simply put, his Huskers haven't learned to close games out.
Feeling his Huskers had momentum and Northwestern on the ropes, Frost attempted the early knockout hoping to steal a possession and score could make it a potential three possession contest.
With Northwestern grinding the game out on the ground, it could have forced the Wildcats to abandon their running game and be one dimensional through the air, where the Wildcats aren't exactly as strong at.
What do the legends say?
Urban Meyer gave criteria for a struggling team.
- Trust Issues
- Dysfunctional Environment
Let's examine this criteria to Frost's situation:
Frost had no trust or faith his Huskers could close this game out and felt he needed to steal a possession even though they were already up two possessions. If he had any trust in his defense, he would have let his them go right back on to the field after they had just produced a turnover.
Frost unloaded on the offensive play calling after the debacle in Dublin saying the offensive coordination lacked the creativity needed in the Big Ten.
While the Huskers weren't exactly gauging the Wildcat defense on the group, it still managed 465 yards of total offense, got 23 first downs, and was 9 for 16 on third down opportunities. I don't think anyone would confuse this Huskers offense with the Osborne teams of the 80's and 90's, but they were getting it done.
There is a combination of dysfunction and selfishness by doing what Frost did.
The backfiring of an onside kick took the momentum away his team fought to get back. It took the wind out of their sails, and ended up completely throwing off the strategic decisions his coordinators had been making - and making especially effectively in the second half.
The pressure is beginning to mount on Frost and the dysfunction isn't from the administration or fans. They have been extremely patient and behind Frost, but Frost is turning the situation into dysfunction.
While offensive coordinator Mark Whipple and Frost seemed to iron out Frost's spat this week, there is still clearly a lot of tension beneath the surface, no matter what Whipple says about reading the papers. The veteran offensive coordinator has been part of championship teams in college and the NFL. He knows you don't kick an onside up two possessions in the second half of a game.
Week 1 - The Punt
In the fourth quarter on the road at Acrisure Stadium, West Virginia head coach Neal Brown had his Mountaineers in position to pull off a big upset in the first Backyard Brawl in over a decade. With 6:09 to go in the game up 31-24, the Mountaineers were on the Panther 48 yard line and Brown faced a decision about a 4th and 1.
Brown elected to take a delay of game penalty to give punter Oliver Straw more operating room to punt. That plan seemed to initially work, as Straw executed on the coffin corner kick, getting a third punt inside the 20 yard line on the night.
However, the Panthers proceeded to drive the ball on a seven play drive for 92 yards to tie the game at 31, and go on to win 38-31.
What was the "Art of the Decision?"
Brown had to be thinking about the fact that the Panthers had punted on their previous two possessions, totaling ten plays for seven yards. The Mountaineers defense had gelled, and his punter would be able to pin them deep.
The defensive line especially was effective against a very experienced Panther offensive line having three sacks and four tackles for loss. If the Mountaineer defense stymies the Panther offense again, it sets up very good field position for the next drive, where they can put the nail in the coffin.
What the legends say?
Let's take a look at how two legends would have Brown's situation. The first is from Nick Saban and his book, How Good Do You Want to Be?
Saban recollects about being an assistant on the Ohio State staff and with the Buckeyes visiting arch rival Michigan that year, he wrote about how then Ohio State head coach Earle Bruce brought back Woody Hayes for the first since his firing to speak to the team with the rival up north:
"Former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, legendary for the successes he piled up in his twenty-eight years as a head coach, accepted an invitation by Earle to return to OSU for the first time since being replaced. As he stood in front of the team, he noted that there are “no great victories in life without tremendous adversity.”
- Nick Saban, How Good Do You Want to Be?
The tremendous adversity the Mountaineers faced on the road, overcoming the talent deficit and successfully counterpunching every Panther offensive. The Mountaineers were overcoming that tremendous adversity Saban talked about. However, there was one more significant obstacle, and it was a 4th and 1 at the Panther 48-yard line.
This leads us to our second legend. Follansbee, West Virginia native Lou Holtz.
Holtz says in his book, Winning Every Day, that "momentum is whatever your attitude determines it to be." On that 4th and 1, Brown (hopefully) contemplated what the price of the knockout would be?
The Mountaineers at that point had rushed for 182 yards, and running backs C.J. Donaldson and Tony Mathis Jr. were averaging over eight yards per carry (196 yards on 24 carries). If he had an attitude that was aggressive, he would have gone for the knockout and the win.
After first quarter struggles with the offensive line, the unit had seemed to gel against a very talented Panther defensive front and had an attitude it could open holes for their two back monster. Instead Brown opted a conservative attitude and took the aggressive attitude away from his offensive unit that had the taste of victory.
For the Mountaineers to take that next step as a program, you have to take risks, that was the moment to take a risk that could have given Brown's program momentum to take the next steps.