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Monday, October 22, 2007

Fairly typical criticism following LSU's last second win against Auburn, this from Terry Bowden:

And finally, LSU.

The Tigers from Baton Rouge won another nail biter 30-24 against the Tigers from Auburn. On yet another unbelievable call by coach Les Miles on the last play of the game, he decided to forgo the winning field goal from the 22-yard line and throw a pass into the back of the end zone with eight seconds left. Although the pass was caught with one second showing on the clock, there is a good chance time would have run out if the ball had been dropped or deflected and LSU would have been unable to utilize its last timeout. I nicknamed Coach Miles, "Sparky" after his gutsy fourth-down calls against Florida two weeks ago. But there was nothing gutsy about this one at all. It was just a bad call gone good.

Mark May and others have also offered variations on this. This is wrong. Just so we're all on the same page, here's the final LSU series. It starts on the 25 after a Jacob Hester run with about a minute and a half left:

LSU has a 42 yard field goal set up at this point and 1:30 -- an eternity -- on the clock. LSU strolls to the line on first down and runs Flynn on an option for two yards. LSU declines to go hurry-up. On second down, LSU runs a waggle to the tight end for one yard. The clock continues to roll and roll and roll until nine seconds, when Flynn finally snaps it and chucks it into the endzone for the winning touchdown.

Watch the clock closely: the receiver hauls the ball in with four seconds on the clock. The clock continues to run for three seconds before it stops, giving the erroneous appearance of danger where there was none. If the pass is incomplete Colt David has a shot at a 39-yarder for the win. As a reminder, David is a tetchy kicker who's 3 of 6 from beyond 40 this year and missed an important 36-yarder against Florida.

Genius? Madness? A mixture of the two? Consider:
  • Given the alignment of the Auburn defense: eight in the box, safety shaded over to the other side of the field, Flynn knows he was one-on-one coverage on the left.
  • The corner is rolled up, not in press but about five yards off the LOS.
  • The ball snaps with nine seconds on the clock and is caught with four. There is no serious danger of not getting a final play off.
  • Flynn takes a five step drop and chucks it immediately; both running backs stay in to block and pick up blitzers. There is no chance of a sack.
  • The high-arcing loop of the ball makes it impossible for anyone to bat it at the line.
The only thing that can go really wrong on this play is for the Auburn cornerback to intercept the ball. Interceptions are highly unusual occurrences, especially in one-on-one coverage that is unlikely to end up bailing out into a deep zone. The chances of something going truly wrong were minute.

The real debate is between Flynn's endzone chuck and hurrying up, throwing a higher percentage pass, and attempting to pick up a first down that would shorten the field goal to a near-automatic range. Is the difference between the relative success rates of a 40-ish yard field goal and a 30-ish yard field goal enough to make the decision to grind out the clock unwise? Is the risk of an Auburn drive that starts with 30 seconds on the clock enough to justify LSU's leisurely pace?

These questions are murky. There are no clear answers here. LSU and Auburn found themselves in a situation much like the end of the Texas-Michigan Rose Bowl where both teams seemed content with a makable but not guaranteed field goal. LSU ran on first down, threw short on second, and let the clock roll. Tommy Tuberville looked on, timeouts in hand, and let the clock roll. LSU baited Auburn into thinking they had reached a mutual compromise, then sprung its trap. In the abstract, it was a brilliant gambit with little downside. In practice, outstanding coverage from the Auburn corner and a timekeeper asleep at the switch made it look like sheer mindless bravado. It was not, even if it appeared like that even to astute observers like Orson and SMQB.

The problem I did have came earlier in the fourth when Miles passed on a fourth and one for a chip shot field goal that pushed the margin to 6. Going from a three-point to a six-point lead is only marginally useful. Yes, it forces the other team to score a touchdown to win but it also increases the effectiveness of the opposing offense by making fourth downs available. It's more defensible given the clock situation (eight minutes left), since having the field goal in your pocket is really useful if Auburn scores a touchdown and you get the ball back with time to mount a drive, but going for it and punching in a touchdown basically ends the game. I would have gone.