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Dissecting a Decision

I said that someday I'd start talking about the Outback Bowl, well, guess what, today's that day.

So, you have 4th and goal at the 5, down three. Whatever play you call will result in a win, loss, or double overtime. 

As you might know, Pat Fitzgerald opted to run a trick play called "Heater", and it was stopped for a gain of three, two yards short of the end zone, and Northwestern lost 38-35. Most of America probably thought something like "ballsy/stupid call! Awesome finish!" and turned away. You probably made up your mind with some combination of disgust or awe within eight seconds of seeing the play in Raymond James Stadium. 

I mulled it over for like four days, and what you have after the jump, complete with pictures, is what I came up with.

So in a goal-line situation, down three, fourth down, you have two options: play for the win, or play for the tie.

Option no 1. Tying the game

The tie, obviously, is kicking a field goal. Unfortunately, your kicker, Stefan Demos, just had an Auburn player slide into his planting foot quite violently a few minutes earlier, and is in no position to kick, let alone walk. (That injury looked brutal, but if Stefan Demos wants to kick at NU again, the bigger question than "can a kicker recover from having one of his legs torn off?" is "how does a human being emotionally come back from what Stefan Demos experienced during the Outback Bowl?" I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. Remember what I wrote about how you shouldn't say bad things about Krissy Cox a few weeks ago? Yeah, that times a million for Stefan Demos. I overheard a conversation on Sheridan Road the other day that distinctly included the phrase "Stefan f*cking Demos", so it's pretty clear that the average Northwestern student is somewhere between "hate" and "loathing", but I wish it would be somewhere closer to "furiosity with a side of sympathy.") Tangent aside, you have two options for who could have kicked the field goal

Option 1a) Give it to walk-on Steve Flaherty. Next time you go to a Wildcats game, or presumably any college football game, look out on the field at halftime. First come the marching bands. They come, do their thing, and peace out. Then, three or four guys come out by themselves with tees and footballs. One of these guys is Steve Flaherty. Watch him. I've done it. It's entertaining. If alcohol was sold at Ryan Field, I would have ordered that there be a backup kicker based drinking game, where each 40+ yard miss caused you to finish your entire beer. (People would get drunk. Fast.) But although I joke, Flaherty is relatively successful when I've watched him. Flaherty appeared in the Towson game, and kicked an extra point with no problem, and then kicked a kickoff for a touchback, which is pretty impressive when you think about it. (In 69 kickoffs, Demos kicked the ball out of bounds once and for touchback twice, averaging 59 yards a kick, meaning the ball generally landed on the 11-yard line. Flaherty was 1/1 on getting the ball into the end zone.) What I'm trying to say is, the kid can kick reasonably well. 

Option 1b) Burn Jeff Budzien's redshirt. It probably shows to how I pay too much attention to NU sports that this was something I thought of in my seat. Earlier in the year, with Amado Villarreal graduating, there was a sufficient amount of hype about Jeff Budzien, Northwestern's stud kicking recruit. He was generally either first or second-team all-American in various scouting services, and NU landed him. The question is: is it worth it burning an entire year of eligibility just for one kick? Depends on the situation. If Northwestern needed a 45-yarder for the win, there's no doubt in my mind that this would have been the right decision, even if he missed it. His chance of hitting the field goal is most likely considerably higher than Flaherty's, no offense to Flaherty. A bowl win in 2010 for the first time in 61 years is far more important than having Jeff Budzien in 2014 to me, and if you disagree, Stefan Demos will be a senior next year, and we could have redshirted Budzien for a second straight year, if he didn't almost immediately decide to transfer after we ruined a year of his football eligibility for one shining moment. However, for a 22-yard chippie, the right move would've been to turn to Flaherty. 

Coach Fitzgerald saw these options, and turned them down. I'm sure coach Fitzgerald is confident in the ability of his two backup kickers to hit a 22-yarder. I don't think that going for it in this situation was a "oh crap, I don't have a kicker" decision. I think he saw the situation and genuinely realized that this might be Northwestern's best chance to win, and that he was going for it. I'm betting that in another situation, he had needed three points from the five yard line, he would have turned to Flaherty to kick it, and he most likely would have made it. But this was no ordinary situation: NU only had to go five yards for a bowl win, and Fitz was going for it.

Option No. 2: Go for it. 

As a Jets fan, this is relevant:

So again, you have two more options:

Option 2a) Go for it, like, the normal way. One of NU's flaws this season is that we didn't have a real goal line set. We have a spread offense, and we keep it that way when we get down near the painted grass. This was a more pronounced problemt his year than in year's past because then, you get to the five yard line, run a four-wide spread with Tyrell Sutton in the backfield, and that handoff to Tyrell up the gut works well. Less so with Jacob Schmidt. It took the Cats about six weeks to realize that a 1st-and-goal from the five would not result in a touchdown if two of those plays were draws out of the shotgun set to Schmidt. Eventually, because coach Fitz is quicker than your average, he figured it out, and started doing the same thing from the shadow of the goalposts that he'd been doing for the entire length of the field, and we started seeing Kafka (or, at Iowa, Persa) throwing for short gains or looking for the pass and then running up the gut near the goal line. 

There's a large contingent saying that this is what NU should have done, and, quite frankly, I'm in this camp. Mike Kafka was 47/78 with 532 yards passing, and yes, some of those plays had been close to the goal. Sure, he'd been off - see the five picks, and a number of catches that needed dramatic reels by Jeremy Ebert, SidneyStewart, and Andrew Brewer - but let it be noted that two of those picks should have been catches by NU wide receivers. Kafka was NU's go-to guy all-game, and quite frankly, I disagree that the most important play of the game was the time to switch.

Option 2b) Run a trick play. A few plays earlier, NU had needed to score from the three-yard line on a two-point conversion, and NU went to a trick play: an end-around pass from ex-QB Andrew Brewer to seldom-used superback Brendan Mitchell. This is important to this play for two reasons: first off, it took a very good and very successful trick play out of NU's playbook. Mitchell was wide-open, and if this play had been usable in this situation, there's no doubt that Mitchell might have been wide open for a game-winning touchdown and not a two-point conversion. Also, it probably gave coach Fitz a little added confidence in his ability to run a trick play. You get what you need once, it makes you think you might get what you need again.

The trick play Fitz decided on is a variation on something called a "puntrooskie". Bobby Bowden's FSU team ran a puntrooskie against Clemson, this is what it looks like when executed well.

The ball is snapped to one of the upbacks, the punter pretends the ball went over his head. The upback who caught the ball hands the ball off through the legs of a crouched upback in front of him who holds the pose for a second, then takes off in the opposite direction, just half a second after the rest of the team has just taken off blocking for the guy who just caught the ball. It's chaos, and if the handoff is done correctly, nobody sees the guy who caught the snap duck behind the guy who takes the handoff, and nobody sees the guy who takes the handoff holding the ball between his legs for that half a second. In this play, only one Clemson player sees what's going on.  It's an amazing play.

The problem for Northwestern is that in this example, Clemson, was expecting a punt. FSU played into this by setting up in a punt formation. 

On fourth and goal from the five up three, you're probably expecting a field goal. I think the major flaw of this play is that it fails to convince anybody watching it that it wasn't a trick play. Here's what this play looked as it was snapped:


Steve Flaherty, our backup kicker is on the field, but he's not kicking the ball. He's lined up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, with no holder. What is that? A punt? Drop kick? In the stands, I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but when I saw that there was no holder, I knew automatically it couldn't be a field goal, and for Auburn, that was enough to tip them off that something was coming. What? I had no idea. Neither did the Auburn players. But I was certainly able to rule out the field goal, which in a situation you're running a fake play with a kicker on the field, is a pretty big thing.

There's a few more things to notice about this play: first off, it was run very quickly. The team barely came to a set before hiking the ball, which caught ESPN's cameras off guard, as they never switched from this camera angle to the one they generally use for plays from the line of scrimmage. As you can see, all the players on the field are standing upright except long snapper John Henry Pace and Dan Persa. This is a design thing to catch the opposing team off guard, which works to some extent, because none of the players on Auburn's side got into a defensive stance until well after the ball had been snapped. The o-line remains standing even after the ball is snapped, just in hopes to confuse the other team.

Also, Mark Woodsum is in motion from the right to the left. Quite frankly, I have no idea why this is. It might be because there's some illegal procedure rule I've never heard of saying you have to have two guys seven yards behind the line of scrimmage or something on plays with that many guys on the line, I don't know. He ends up being part of the unsuccessful decoy to the left side along with the kicker, Steve Flaherty, and Dan Persa, but the play would have been considerably more successful had he just stayed put, as you'll see.

So Persa gets the snap, and tries to hand it off discreetly to Markshausen, as you see here: Heaterhandoff_medium

From where I was (NU student section, approximately the 1-yard line) it was plain to see that Persa was handing the ball off to somebody, blowing the plays cover, but it occurred to me after watching it that this action might have been hidden from the other side, and, turns out, they were. Here's the exact same moment (roughly) from the reverse angle. 


You can't even see Persa in this angle. Eventually, Persa, Woosum, and Flaherty would sprint towards the left side of the field (right from this angle) and people have remarked that "if they ran the play that way, they would've scored." I don't think this is necessarily true. That argument comes under the assumption that NU had somehow outsmarted themselves by unsuccesfully running a reverse to the right side when they had the regular angle sealed off. In reality, the right side of the Auburn defense was on top of the play until they realized that Persa didn't have the ball anymore and jetted off to the other side of the play.

Markshausen held the crouched pose for a second as you see in a screenshot a few frames after the one above:


As noted, people are on top of Persa for the most part. Although most of the motion here is developing towards the left side (the decoy), the beginnings of the push to the right have started. Look at where Corey Wootton is standing, roughly parallel to the gap in the letter "R" in the end zone. Go back to the first photo, where he was standing just about the hash mark. The entire o-line took about two big steps to the right with linked arms, but did so kind of sneakily, without drawing the attention of the d. The obvious reason is that they're moving right because they know they'll have to block to the right. However, it wasn't enough. Wootton's blocking assignment here is #15, Neiko Thorpe, seen way at the right of the screen.

Now, in field goal block set-ups, there is no cornerback. Obviously. There's a bunch of guys trying to block a field goal. However, Auburn doens't go with a field goal blocking formation. They just go with a regular goal line d, featuring a corner on each side. If NU had sold the field goal rather than running the play they did, Thorpe, in this situation, the cornerback, might have played closer to the line than he did, which might have made Corey Wootton blocking him out halfway plausible. The way it is, Wootton is assigned to block a cornerback who started off the play about three yards closer to the play in question than he was. Wootton is fast, but NU doesn't have a guy fast enough to do that at any position, let alone defensive end. 

Here's the next photo, sorry for the terrible quality.


You'll see two things here: Neil Deiters has been beaten to the outside by Auburn's Antoine Carter, but Wootton looks like he might have a block on Thorpe. Either way, the play hasn't developed well for Markshausen. It doesn't look like at this point he could beat Thorpe to the outside, and I don't think there's anybody good enough at running on NU's team to beat Carter in this scenario, and manage to cut back to follow Wootton's block to the inside in like two yards, but that's just me. Instead, Markshausen tries to beat Thorpe to the outside. Wootblock_medium

Here's about the same image from a different angle. Wootton has the block, but all Thorpe - who, again, is way faster than Wootton - had to do to break out of it was a simple spin move. I don't put this  on Wootton - he never should've been asked to block out against someone that much simply faster than him. 

That speed causes the picture above to turn into this:


... turn into this:Gameoverman_medium

So, yeah. I'm tired of writing, I think you get my gist by now: I agree with going for it, not so much with the way the play was called and the way it was executed.

Tell me how y'all feel.