10/29/2005 - Michigan 33-17 Northwestern - 6-3, 4-2 Big Ten
Pop quiz, hotshot:
- Defense A plays a conservative, bend-don't-break style of defense that results in a lot of long drives by the opposition. They get few three-and-outs. By the end of the game they yield 17 points on three long drives, giving up about 420 yards.
- Defense B is more of a gambling unit that uses more man coverage and stunts the hell out of its defensive line, getting frequent pressure at the expense of the occasional gaping hole. It gives up fewer long drives but more long plays. By the end of the game they yield 17 points due to a series of big plays against. They also yield about 420 yards.
Which defense is better?
Is this a trick question? What if I told you that Defense A faced 11 drives and Defense B 16? Does that make your thinking on this case very clear, man? What if I told you this particular situation was not particularly hypothetical at all and would probably serve as fabulous justification for a much different take on two performances that seem nearly identical on the surface? What if I stopped using this slightly annoying rhetorical device?
The upshot is this: the game is changing, man, and those that change with it will have extremely fine pads with all the latest in eight-track technology. Those who do not will probably end up on Fanopticon under the headline "Irate fans burn down house of coach; much of the latest in eight-track technology lost." Part of that change is in realizing that the current state of football statistics is dire and that what really counts is drive efficiency, not raw totals. Part of that change is in realizing that 30-40 yards from a punt is just not as valuable as it used to be. A punt is just as good as a long interception: it's a turnover.
I submit that Lloyd Carr is working towards that sweet eight-track player by changing his habits built up over the decades. This isn't easy--changing an ingrained habit is never, ever easy. He's doing it in fits and starts, like a man attempting to kick heroin. Relapses are regular, but there is change afoot. As a result, Michigan fans were treated to the Least Likely Playcall in History on Saturday when crotchety old Lloyd eschewed a field goal on fourth and six from the twenty-three and instead directed Chad Henne to throw it three yards wide of an open Steve Breaston. Turnover on downs. Oh well.
In this case, though, it is indeed the thought that counts. That play should serve as definitive proof that the old dog is struggling towards some new tricks, because even the hardcore Romer devotees among us probably looked towards whoever else was available and tried to communicate something along the lines of "my vociferous bitching on the Internets has created a monster I cannot control" with only a cocked eyebrow and disquieted countenance. Fourth and six! With a 40 yard field goal waiting! Zounds. Let me be clear on this: I disagree with that playcall because it is too aggressive. T-O-O aggressive. In other news, gravity pulls up, Penn State fans are models of decorum when questioned about officiating, and Michigan State is showing remarkable resiliency after losing to Michigan.
Carr's attempt to come to Game Theory Jesus shouldn't be a total shock. Carr's always been somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to risk. While he's downright Victorian when leading a close game, he's always had a flair for exquisitely timed trickeration when behind--the Navarre buffalo stampede versus Minnesota, the flea-flicker this year, etc. Those plays which are inherently high-risk, high-reward, and Carr has an undeniable knack for producing them at the right time. He occasionally risks without benefit, generally when he's feeling his oats way ahead late. I still maintain that the John Navarre called with six minutes left in the '03 MSU game--Navarre fumbled and turned a two-score-going-on-three laugher into a losable game--was amongst the worst calls in the history of everything. Likewise, he chose this game to feature third-down play action attempting to kill the clock when the situation--up 16, under two minutes left--probably called for the run run run punt strategy employed against Penn State, since only a miracle pick-six could have given the Wildcats even a sliver of hope.
I'm not complaining about any of this, at least not at the moment. Nor am I complaining about the run run run field goal at the end of the half that seemed designed more to keep Northwestern from scoring before the end of the half (a futile endeavor) than to get a critical extra four points. Running from the three against Northwestern's D is not a crazy decision. Carr's fourth down decisions have been largely correct this year aside from the Rivas pooch punt towards the end of the Penn State game. In multiple cases he's made tough, correct decisions: going on fourth and goal from the one against Wisconsin, pounding it into the line twice against Michigan State, etc. Even when the strategy has backfired, he accepts the downside and persists in a more aggressive posture.
In context, the Penn State gaffe seems more like one last hit of that sweet Bombay Popsicle* snuck in-between rehab sessions than evidence of 1970s thinking taking hold. Lloyd Carr has checked himself in to the Betty Ford Center for Coaches Addicted to Low Variance. I wouldn't expect a flying-colors discharge any time soon, but he's made the first, biggest step. There's still a lot of work to do--I think we need an intervention about that running on first down into a nine-man front thing, not to mention that horrible soft zone--but he's trying to change.
He's got fourth down, uh, down. First and second are mountains yet to come.
*(uh, yeah, I don't know either.)