Saturday, January 06, 2007

Boise State's play calling

The Fiesta Bowl was a game for the ages. I'm not sure I'd call it the greatest game I've ever watched--I'm partial to the 2005 Illinois-Arizona Elite Eight Game due to personal bias--but it's up there, especially the last few minutes and overtime. If all you saw was the highlights, make sure you catch it whenever it hits ESPN Classic.

Though the talking heads in the media are universally praising Boise State's play calling on three crucial plays near the end of the game, those of us who aren't results-oriented should be more skeptical. Let's take a look at two of them.

The Hook and Ladder

The situation: 4th and 18, 50 yard line, 18 seconds left, BSU down by 7.

The play: Jared Zabransky passes to Drisan James to the left for 15 yards. James heads towards the center of the field, then laterals to Jerard Rabb, who takes it down the sideline for a touchdown with 7 seconds remaining.

The verdict: A+. BSU knows Oklahoma is going to be watching for a 20-yard pass or a 50-yard pass, so they throw it where they know they'll have room and hope for a miracle.

Even if Boise got the first down, they would still need another 30 yards to tie, with enough time left for two plays. Going for broke clearly seems like the best gamble here, although they were very fortunate that Oklahoma bit and the play succeeded.

The Game-Winner

The situation: BSU has just scored a touchdown to bring them within 1 point in the first overtime.

The play: They go for two and the win. They run the Statue of Liberty play and Ian Johnson marches into the end zone untouched.

The verdict: A. Boise risked a lot of criticism with this move, as nothing makes you look like a bigger fool than trying an unorthodox strategy and failing; just ask Tom Osborne. But this was clearly the right move. Oklahoma is a better team than Boise, and with the additional disadvantage of going first in the next overtime, BSU was looking at less than a 40% chance of winning by tying the game. Add in that the extra point is not automatic--their kicker missed two this season--and the breakeven conversion rate is probably around 35-38%. It's hard to believe they convert this infrequently, especially when the coach knows they can execute a flawless trick play.

This decision wasn't as clear cut as the hook and ladder, but it was the right one.

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At least in one man's opinion, they made the right decisions. I'll leave the analysis of their overtime touchdown to those who know more about the success rate of direct snap passes in college.

It's important to remember, though, that making the right decision is only a small part of the battle. If Boise State wasn't fortunate in how these plays turned out, they wouldn't be undefeated and Ian Johnson might still be looking for a clever way to propose.

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