Monday, October 5, 2009

Playing Not to Lose...Again.

Saturday's loss made me sick to my stomach. After playing so well and getting SO CLOSE we lost to the hated Badgers of Wisconsin again. Our defense was incredibly good but just got worn down after being on the field so much while our offense, which was opportunistic in the first half, suddenly lost productivity and creativity in the second half as the Badgers crept back in and slowly and methodically won the game.

What made this loss hurt even worse was when I went back and looked at last year's game, a similar three point loss to Wisconsin 35-32, and realized it was almost exactly the same game. Seriously, it played out almost exactly the same way! What did head coach Tim Brewster learn from a three point loss to the Badgers where you had a halftime lead and instead of going for the jugular and playing to win you played not to lose and lost? Apparently nothing.

Look, the offense was putrid in the second half and the play-calling of Jed Fisch was conservative and predictable, but this loss falls squarely at the feet of Brewter because he was there last year for the three point loss to Wisconsin, while so many of his coordinators, including Fisch were not. For the second straight year Brewster had the ball and a lead with two minutes to go in the first half against Wisconsin and two years in a row he got scared, went conservative by playing not to lose, and ended up losing the game. All of this from the program's biggest cheerleader and most positive supporter, who everyday all day just wants to tell you how much he loves his kids and how great they are and how awesome this football team is. Yet when the chips are down, that confidence in his kids seems to vanish, and the man starts playing not to lose. It makes all of his pep talks and positivity ring pretty hollow and shallow.

You can chalk up last year's loss to Wisconsin to inexperience and learn from it. The Gophers were without their two best offensive players in Eric Decker and Duane Bennett and had looked awful in the two games leading up to the trip to Camp Randall. I was expecting the worst, yet the Gophs stormed out of the gate, the defense caused some turnovers, the offense capitalized and there they were with a surprising first half lead of 21-7. Scroll down to the bottom of this play-by-play chart from last year's game, and see if this sounds familiar: after forcing a Badger turnover the Gophers have the ball with 2:13 left at their own 21 with two timeouts. The Gophers had played really well to this point, as the defense had forced three turnovers and the offense had done a good job of moving the ball. Here, up two scores on the road with a young team, Brewster decided to sit on the lead with four straight rushes for Eskridge (which actually got them out to the 50), but instead of calling timeouts to give them a chance to drive further for a field goal, Brew lets the clock run out.

I HATED the call at the time and still do, but at least I sort of understand it. You've played well and don't want to risk the entire game being turned around by a pick or fumble (you have to wonder if he had the Northwestern game from that year on his mind. The Gophers were tied late with the ball in their own end, and Brewster decided to try and march down field for a field goal instead of play for overtime. Of course, as we all unfortunately remember, Weber got picked off and it returned for the winning touchdown. You have to wonder if Brewster is still beating himself up for that one, even if I think it was a good call to put faith in your kids and your offense to play to win instead of playing not to lose). Still, by playing not to lose there, it seems like that message and that attitude permiated the team and the Gophers choked away the lead in the second half. It was almost like they were told "You're lucky to be here and we're lucky to have a lead. My gawd, don't blow this! Whatever you do, don't screw this up!!" and of course that's exactly what happened.

In the first half of that game the Gopher D forced three turnovers and had held the Badgers to just 137 yards of offense. In the second half Wisconsin went on the offensive, chewing up the clock and tiring out the Gophers D with three long scoring drives to tie the game at 24. The Gophers, in full "play not to lose" mode, fumble the ensuing kickoff and get tackled for a safety giving Sconnie a lead they wouldn't relinquish. The Gophers would continue playing not to lose, which resulted in another safety, to which the Gophers responded with a false start penalty, two rushes and a fumble at their own 11, which the Badgers then walked in for another TD to make it 35-24. Then, FINALLY, with 6:59 left and down 11, the Gophers started playing to win. They scored on an 11 play 60 yard drive, forced a 3-and-out, and then had a chance to tie or win the game with 2:35 left on their own 22. Weber would eventually get picked and the Badgers would run out the clock, but it wasn't until it was almost too late that Coach Brewster finally got out of Play Not To Lose mode.

Fine. Tough loss with a young and banged up team. File that one away for another time, and hopefully learn about not playing to lose.

Flash forward to Saturday. Gophers and Badgers, this time at home with 18 starters back from last year's squad. You're holding a first half lead of 13-10. Your defense is playing just as well as they did in the first half of last year, only your offense hasn't been as good, with three trips to the red zone but only one TD. Still, your offense has been moving the ball, and you've shown creativtiy with some Wildcat formations that have worked pretty well and keep the Badgers guessing. You have the ball on your own 13 with 1:15 to play and two timeouts. Last year, on the road with a bigger lead and a team that was playing better, you decided to Play Not To Lose. Surely this year, AT HOME, with a more experienced group and an offense that includes the most productive receiver in the country and three year starting QB, you'd learn from your mistake and go for the points right? RIGHT?

Four. Eskridge. Runs (with one short Weber incompletion thrown in). The clock runs out and you sit on your lead at halftime. Again.

I think you know what happens in the second half. If you saw the game from 2008, you know exactly what happens. The Badgers come out smelling blood, the Gophers Play Not To Lose, and Brewster blows another one. EXACTLY THE SAME WAY HE DID THE YEAR BEFORE!!!!! It'd be maddening enough to watch that game knowing this was the first time Brewster had gotten scared and told his coordinators and his kids to Play Not To Lose. But for it to happen again, to the same team in almost the exact same situation, is inexcusable. I understand the risks of being aggressive and playing to win, but when you play not to lose, you usually end up losing.

And to make things worse, they didn't even wake up and start playing to win before it was too late. The only reason they woke up is because the defense did it for them. In the second half, the first three Gopher offensive possessions totaled 12 plays for 11 yards, resulting in a pick and two punts. With about six minutes remaining in the ball game (again just like last year) the Gopher defense came to the rescue. Eric Small forced a fumble on Zach Brown (speaking of coaching blunders, what the hell was Brown doing in the game? John Clay was destroying the Gopher defense for the entire second half, and what does Bret Bielma do? Puts in Brown for reasons only he knows, and Brown ends up fumbling. Unreal. Thanks for that one Bret!), which Marcus Sherels scooped up and ran to the house. Weber completes a nice two-point conversion to Da'Jon McKnight and suddenly it's a three point game again.

Unfortunately the Gopher defense, which up to that point had been on the field for almost 10 of the last 12 minutes of game time, had nothing left to give. Bielma made up for his Brown Blunder and did what any smart coach would do: told his offensive coordinator to be aggressive and finish off an exhausted defense, which is exactly what Badger o-coordinator Paul Crist did, orchestrating an 8 play 74 yard drive that chewed up another four minutes. Sure, six of those eight plays were runs, so you could say that Wisconsin got conservative and tried to protect a lead, right?

Wrong. Crist had the call of the day, and maybe the year. After four plays (two run, two pass), Montee Ball runs for one yard. Ball out, Clay in (who to this point had run for about 937 yards in the half), and everyone in the building expects a run for Clay. Crist instead calls for a naked bootleg, as Tolzien fakes the handoff to Clay to the right and rolls to his left- and there's NOBODY there!! He runs for 47 yards down the Gophers 5, and two plays later Clay punches it in for a 10 point lead and the game. Instead of going conservative, Crist and Gophers take a risk and get a huge reward.

To finish up, just like last year the Gophers get offensive too little too late, as Weber completes two beauties deep over the middle to Decker for 40 yards (only his second catch- and the second pass thrown to him of the half!!!!) and tto Tow-Arnett for 38 yards (his only catch of the game). Bennett punches it in and it's 31-28. Stop me if you've heard this, but like last year the D gets the ball back, but out of timeouts and too little too late the Badgers force a turnover to end the game.

Sunday-Friday Tim Brewster loves his offense. Loves its versatility, its talent, and its creativity. He can't shut up about it. But on Saturdays, when it really matters, Brewster shuts up his offense by playing conservative and plays not to lose. And for the second straight year to the same team in the same situation in the same fashion Brewster's lack of confidence in his offense resulted in a loss in a game they could have won. Play to win from Sunday-Friday, but play not to lose on Saturday. Apparently this is the Tim Brewster Way.

1 comment:

Gopher Bandanna Guy said...

Can't say I agree with everything here - even though we had the lead going into the 2nd half, we got completely dominated in time-of-possession (thanks to Clay). Once the Badgers got the lead early in the 3rd, they figured out that running the ball would work, it was their game to lose (which Bielema nearly did). The offense never got enough possessions to get a rhythm going, and the defense obviously got winded.