We used to call it “Sphincter Ball”. Penn State’s venerable erstwhile head coach Joe Paterno was a percentage player, not a gambler. Numerous instances of his exasperatingly conservative calls pollute our football memories with sad tales of lost opportunities. It was annoying, and it typically led to unsatisfyingly mixed feelings of Pyrrhic victories when the conservatism paid off, and anger when it didn’t.
“Never up, never in.”
“You can’t hit a home run if you don’t step up to the plate.”
Sports metaphors abound.
“The defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up of well-directed blows.” —Carl von Clausewitz
Why couldn’t we have tried a play-action pass instead of running it up the gut four times, only to turn the ball over on downs at the one yard-line? I don’t have to tell you which specific game that was, because there were many similar examples through the years and you all know them well. I had Michigan in mind, but it might well have been Alabama. The M.O. was the same.
Well, that boring-ass crap is out the window now that the Bill O’Brien regime has firmly taken hold. Suddenly, one looks back over the past quarter-century or so and wonders what kind of glory was sidetracked by conservative play calling. (The 1995 Rose Bowl team was an exception — no amount of crappy play calling could have held back that offensive juggernaut.) The old philosophy of handing the job of winning games to the defense while employing the offense to give the defense a blow, exemplified by little foibles like always deferring when the initial coin-toss was won, sucks big time. Balance wins ball games.
At Mike’s Garage, the usual suspects assembled for their usual dose of Penn State football. A boring first half led to a discussion of modern European history, replete with mentions the megalomaniacal meanderings of the mad mini-Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, and incorporating the significance of the Hohenzollerns, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Polish Corridor as Europe progressed through the 19th and 20th centuries. However, along the way, we forgot to ask a very important Machiavellian question with relevance to this football game, to reel in our group digression.
“The best defense is a good offense.” Who the hell originally said that?
I’ve always thought it was Vince Lombardi, late coach of the Giants, Packers, and Redskins. I was wrong about that. Apparently the old adage finds its roots in paraphrased military writings, in particular, the philosophical musings of Prussian military genius Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), to wit:
Although the concept of defense is parrying a blow and its characteristic feature is awaiting the blow, “if we are really waging war, we must return the enemy’s blows. . . . Thus a defensive campaign can be fought with offensive battles. . . “The defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up of well-directed blows.”
The object of defense is preservation; and since it is easier to hold ground than to take it, defense is easier than attack. “But defense has a passive purpose: preservation; and attack a positive one: conquest. . . . If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, if follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to pursue a positive object.”
Defense is the stronger form of waging war.
Former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey might have been the individual who popularized the assertion in the sports context; he certainly exemplified the philosophy in his pugilistic endeavors.
So, somehow, we must have known that the answer involved Prussia, but by then we were waking up for the second half.
So, folks, did you see what the hell happened out there in the second half on Saturday? We all are happy that the Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) whipped the previously undefeated #24 Northwestern Wildcats (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) 39-28. That’s obvious. However, this Turkey’s joy relates to how the victory was attained, coming from behind with a mighty, risk-taking 22-point fourth quarter surge after allowing a special teams’ let-down to jeopardize a game that was well in hand, a masterpiece of O’Brienesque ball control football.
Get a grip! Yeah, I know. As Brian Griese, color commentator for ESPN, said, “Put this in perspective, people. It was Northwestern that they beat!” I don’t hold any disdain for Griese for making that strong statement, because he’s correct. It is not like they were out there playing Alabama and outwitting Nick Saban. We’re dealing with Northwestern and Pat Fitzgerald. So, let’s keep our egos in check, shall we?
On the other hand, there is much to be proud of, and my unabated joy over the offensive play-calling has to be something you share. “Going for it” on fourth down is no longer just a compromise because of an ineffectual field goal kicker. It is now a weapon.
Down 14-10 at the intermission after a mundane first half, I was prepared to sleep through the second half.
The head coach had different ideas. ”Our staff and myself, we tried to talk to the players and get them going,” said the Nittany Lions’ head coach, who many now feel is a strong candidate for coach of the year. “We felt like we could move the ball.”
Bill O’Brien and staff were obviously successful in motivating the players with the direct cajoling approach, if not beating it into their heads, but beyond that I’ll throw another cliché at ya: Nothing succeeds like success. When this bunch of guys realize that they can win, they will win.
By now, you know all the highlights, but I’ll sum it up.
- I think the old, Paterno-run teams of the past quarter-century (with obvious exception noted above) would have played sphincterball and lost after being demoralized by Venric Mark’s 75-yard punt return to increase NWU’s lead to 28-17 with a minute left in the third quarter.
- With the old style of play firmly inbrained in my grain, I thought, “Uh oh. Here comes the second half defensive let-down. Now, the floodgates will open.”
- I didn’t even have a chance to think about the famous Wildcat fourth quarter meltdowns against Penn State of recent revered memory, the most famous of which involved a fourth quarter gamble from Mike Robinson to Isaac Smolko in 2005. So, don’t let me be too rough on Paterno teams of the past. He just tightened up the old bungvalve when he felt that he had inferior talent, but when he had confidence in someone like M-Rob, he took off the leash.
- I did yell, “Mistake!” on a couple of those fourth-down conversion tries. Yeah, I know that Sam Ficken couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bag of rice, although he made an 85-yarder on a kickoff (LOL), but still, those calls took BIG BRASS BALLS.
- You could say that Penn State had nothing to lose, but I would be willing to bet that O’Brien would make the same calls if the conference championship were at stake. This guy has cojones!
- The announced attendance of 95,769 sucks. This is Homecoming, people! I mean 13,000 empty seats and it wasn’t even snowing. WTF??? This was an amazing game to watch. What do you people want?
- Sam Ficken batted 1.000 for the day. You can’t beat that with a stick!
- PSU covered the spread and hit the “over” hard. WTG, boys!
- If containing Colter was an object, then big kudos to the Big D! Five carries for 24 yards. Good work, guys!
Five of six fourth down conversions. Yeah, some of them against a very tired defense, but all part of a well-oiled, well-adjusted game plan. I’m proud of the boys and their coach.
The stats, of course, made the game appear much more lopsided in favor of Penn State than it actually was, given that the 75-yard punt return by #5 could have very easily won the game for NWU. Statistics are almost always misleading in the face of fortune. Nevertheless, the plan to keep Northwestern’s defense gasping for breath succeeded. Time of possession advantage to Penn State: about 40 minutes to 20. If any statistics support a win, that is the one.
OK, folks, those are my post-game thoughts. Not much detail and statistical analysis here, just post-game emotion (PGE). Please share your thoughts similarly. BigAl, what did they screw up this time?