Archive for the ‘Cotton Bowl’ Category

Cortney Grixby Has Mad Hops

January 4, 2007

It’s unfortunate that all of that athleticism was apparently wasted on the pregame huddle.

Quick Cotton Bowl Remnants

January 4, 2007

· TV Tan Line has a collection of Cotton Bowl screenshots like the one above that you can peruse at your convenience. HT – Da Wiz

· Auburn blog From the Bleachers has a Cotton Bowl postgame report. Apparently Will doesn’t care much for Nebraska.

“I’ve never much cared for Nebraska. In the ’80’s, the Cornhuskers played a big role in creating the current media-darling “powerhouse” mold: play in a weak conference, run up the score on outmanned opponents, only play one or two real games a year, and rack up the accolades from a press corps that only sees the box scores (or today, ESPN highlights) from most games. Sure, there were occasions when Nebraska was every bit as good as their billing–just ask Steve Spurrier–but there were at least as many years when the Children of the Corn were exposed as ridiculously overrated during bowl season. Like, say, 1983.”

Finally, this has no direct connection to the Cotton Bowl, but it is worth the read nonetheless. Chris from Smart Football has a new piece up relating playcalling in football to a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. He makes some great points and I wish he updated the site more frequently as it is a veritable treasure trove of information.

“Playcalling, at least oversimplified, is a lot like matching pennies, or–for a more common game–rock-paper-scissors. If I choose rock and you choose scissors, I get a first down. If I choose rock and you choose rock, I maybe gain a couple yards. If I choose rock and you choose paper–whoops, I just got sacked and maybe fumbled too.

A lot of football games come down to who has the bigger rocks and scissors (more talent), but tough, highly competitive games really do come down to whether you picked paper vs. his rock or vs. his scissors. But how many supposedly great calls were just luck? Probably a lot. We try to make educated guesses, but there’s something to be said for going random.”

The Fake Punt Revisted

January 3, 2007

By now everyone and their mom (I’m serious, my mom called after the game to question it), is talking about the fake punt early on in Monday’s game. Here is a sampling of the reactions:


“12:20: As if on cue, we turn the channel to the Cotton Bowl and Auburn’s blocking a punt. Wait–no. They’re actually faking a punt on a reverse, which Auburn speedily dismantles. Callahan shows his inner schmuck by making that call, putting Auburn on the NU 15 or so.”

Big Red Network

“You don’t run a fake punt on your own 20-yard line. You…just…don’t. I’m stunned by the raw arrogance of it. In a game where both defenses are playing well, field position is especially important. Why NU did that, I don’t know. And, almost no explanation is likely to be good enough. It absolutely was just like giving the dang game away. Some will say that if the play worked and they got a first down, then it would be genius. Nope. It would still be arrogance. The Greeks had a word for that – hubris. Show too much pride, and the Gods will smite you. Callahan got smote good. And, it cost these kids the game.”

Husker Mike

“Callahan has made a habit out of trick plays this season, and apparantly this fake punt was all that was left in the bag of tricks. It should have stayed there, as this one was all-wrong. Run from deep in Nebraska territory, there’s no guarantee that it would have led to points as we were far from being in a position to capitalize. Simply put, the risk-reward balance was too high on the risk side without that much reward. It was poorly executed, as Dane Todd’s pitch to Andrew Shanle was fumbled, giving Auburn even better field position.”

Fullback Dane Todd

“I thought it was a great call, a great situation to do it. You take a gamble like that, you’re going to get burned once in a while.”

Coach Callahan himself

“It was my call. It didn’t work, obviously, but nonetheless, it was still early enough in the ball game that if it didn’t work and if it faltered, we were still in a good position we felt to come back, but things got discombobulated there. We fumbled the exchange, then lost some critical yardage, so that hurt us. We got behind the eight ball on the short field.”

Given the strong reaction to this call, I decided to give it another look and to try and understand it not from an emotional standpoint, but from a rational and logical perspective. First, in the spirit of full disclosure – I had some immediate reservations about the call. My major concern centered on the use of Dane Todd and Andrew Shanle as the key cogs to the execution of the play. These are two players with limited experience in handling the football. I recognize that the presence of other, more “visible” players might have tipped off our intentions to Auburn. However, this is the coaching staff that lined our backup QB at kicker in order to complete a fake FG against Colorado.

Anyway, onto the analysis.

Examining decision-making during the course of a football game hinges on an analysis of statistical probabilities and hints at the concepts of Game Theory. Despite 18 hours of graduate level statistics, this lies just beyond my expertise. Fortunately, we have the fine folks at Football Commentary to help us out.

The Football Commentary site has developed the Dynamic Programming Model. The Dynamic Programming Model is intended to provide guidance for certain decisions that arise during a game, such as two-point conversions and going for it on fourth down. The Model is built around the idea that in making decisions, we are trying to maximize our team’s probability of winning the game, and the opponents are trying to minimize that probability.

According to the site:

“There are three types of situations, called states, in which the Model explicitly evaluates our probability of winning. The first type of state is when one team or the other has just gained possession. The second type is when a team has just scored a touchdown, but has not yet tried for the extra point (or points). The third type is when a team is about to kick off.

Options to attempt a two-point conversion, to try an onside kick, or to go to a hurry-up offense are modeled explicitly. In addition, making a first down at a particular time, field position, and point differential is equivalent (from the Model’s standpoint) to first gaining possession at that same time, field position, and point differential. Therefore, the model will allow us to analyze decisions to go for it on fourth down.”

The Dynamic Programming Model produces a series of tables that are intended to provide guidance regarding when to go for it on fourth down rather than punt. Although they do not cover the decision to fake a punt directly, I contend that we can utilize these charts to examine the astuteness of Callahan’s decision to fake the punt from deep within our territory against Auburn.

The “Go For It” tables include several variables for guiding the decision-making. These variables include, field position, score, and for first half decisions, whether you will be kicking off or receiving to start the second half. Tables are provided for four different field positions: Our own 5, 20, and 40-yard line, and the opponent’s 40-yard line. In addition, the tables are computed under the assumption that a punt nets 40 yards, except when the line of scrimmage is the opponent’s 40-yard line, from which we then assume a punt nets 30 yards.

So let’s examine the variables facing Callahan and the Huskers when the crucial decision was made. The game is tied 7-7 with approximately 15 minutes left in the first half, and we face a fourth down near our own 30-yard line. We will also be kicking off to start the second half. Because the 30-yard line falls in between the tables for our own 20-yard line and our own 40-yard line, we will have to do some extrapolating.

In the Table labeled “Own 20 yard line, first half, we will kick off to start the second half” we go to the row corresponding to a lead of 0, and the column corresponding to 15:00 remaining. The Table entry is 0.58. This means that if the probability of picking up the first down exceeds 0.58 we should go for it (or possibly fake it), and otherwise we should punt. In the Table labeled “Own 40 yard line, first half, we will kick off to start the second half” we go to the row corresponding to a lead of 0, and the column corresponding to 15:00 remaining. The Table entry is 0.51. This means that if the probability of picking up the first down exceeds 0.51 we should go for it (or possibly fake it), and otherwise we should punt. If we extrapolate from those probabilities to fit our situation at our own 29-yard line we get a range somewhere between .51-.58.

In other words, Callahan should only have called the fake punt if he felt it had a probability of success (gaining 1+ yards), of somewhere around 0.55. Given the element of surprise, the need to gain just one yard, and the likelihood of successful execution of the play in the practices leading up to the Cotton Bowl, it becomes easier to see how Callahan came to the decision to call for the fake. The model is telling us that if Callahan felt the fake would work 6/10 times, then calling it at this point, and from this spot on the field would maximize our probability of winning the game.

Now let’s put the decision into greater perspective by contrasting it with other, similar coaching decisions. First, versus USC, the Huskers ran a similar fake punt. At the time, however, that decision was viewed in a much more positive light, despite the fact that it led to no points. In that situation, the game was tied 3-3 with approximately 10 minutes left in the first half, and we faced a fourth down near our own 40-yard line. We would also be kicking off to start the second half of that game. In the Table labeled “Own 40 yard line, first half, we will kick off to start the second half” we go to the row corresponding to a lead of 0, and the column corresponding to 9:00 remaining. The Table entry is 0.51. This means that if the probability of picking up the first down exceeds 0.51 we should have gone for it (or possibly faked it), and otherwise we should punt.

Notice that the probability is nearly identical to that of the Auburn game. The only difference was that this particular fake punt led to a gain of 28-yards and a first down. The reaction to the two decisions, however, has been vastly different. My hunch is that the difference has nothing to do with probabilities, or game theory, but instead centers solely on the success of one fake and the failure of another. After all, both were designed to catch the opponent off-guard and both came early in the game allowing the team time to come back if the play failed.

For more perspective, consider another coaching decision. When we faced Kansas State, first year head coach Ron Prince also made what was viewed as a high-risk decision concerning a fake punt. In this situation, Kansas State trailed by 7, with approximately 18:00 to go in the first half, and faced a fourth down near their own 9-yard line. Kansas State would also be receiving the second half kickoff. In the Table labeled “Own 5 yard line, first half, opponents will kick off to start the second half” we go to the row corresponding to a lead of -7, and the column corresponding to 18:00 remaining. The Table entry is 0.70. This means that if the probability of picking up the first down exceeds 0.70 KSU should have gone for it (or possibly faked it), and otherwise they should punt. Here we see that Prince should have felt that the fake had a 70% probability of success, or he had no business calling it. In this case, the fake worked and gained 38-yards, but led to zero points.

We see, therefore, several fake punt situations and probabilities associated with this decision-making process. One might argue, however, that the Dynamic Programming Model is simply a computer simulation, and has no bearing on coaches, who tend to make decisions based on “hunches” or “a feel for the game”. I believe that many coaches would disagree with this assessment.

For instance, in his book Developing an Offensive Game Plan, Brian Billick writes:

“Too often people have resisted the technological wave of advancement, thinking that a computer is nothing more than a number-crunching, dehumanizing, complicated mechanism – a device intended either for only the most sophisticated ‘hackers’ or for the games of children. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In addition, even crusty curmudgeon Bill Parcells has moved into the future. In his own book, Finding a Way to Win, he says,

“If the competition has laptop computers and you’re still using yellow legal pads, it won’t matter how long and hard you work, they’re going to pass you by.”

Coaches are most definitely aware of this type of probability model and are likely using them to guide their decision-making process. Callahan and the Huskers got burnt when poor execution reduced the probability of success for the early fake punt to zero. Auburn jumped on the mistake and Nebraska’s offense could not duplicate its early accomplishments. The end-result was a 3-point loss to a Top 10 team, and another failed attempt to get over the proverbial hump.

Final disclosure – I had no hidden agenda when writing this piece. I am not being paid by Steve Pederson, Bill Callahan or Callahan’s agent. I was not attempting to defend Callahan’s decision, nor was I sure what I would specifically find by examining the Dynamic Programming Model tables. My sole intent, was to examine the data we have at our disposal in order to put this particular decision into a less emotionally-charged perspective. However, you may note that I had previously glanced at the tables in a cursory manner, and was at least superficially aware of a trend indicating that coaches should probably go for it more frequently on fourth down.


January 2, 2007

Wow, I don’t really know what happened, but it wasn’t pretty. It was truly an ugly game for both teams. The only things that were more dreadful than the plodding offenses were the performances of the announcers in the booth. I actually tried to switch over to Jim Rose and the radio coverage, but couldn’t find an internet link. It was just a bad day all around. Anyway, here are my early Cotton Bowl ruminations.

· The only reason I mentioned that Auburn didn’t score an offensive TD in their win over Florida, was that I felt they were more than capable of jumping on our mistakes.

· The fake punt was a bad call, but not for the reasons you might think. My issue is that it involved two players who NEVER touch the ball. Dane Todd has zero carries, and Andrew Shanle showed off his stellar stone hands twice in this game.

· I understand Callahan and the university following HIPAA guidelines and not wanting to tip-off the opponent, but I will never again believe that one of our players is healthy until I see him contributing.

· For every quick start we have mustered this season, we seem to have a sluggish finish to close things out.

· The defense looked dominant early on and was successful in first stopping the run. Carriker and company looked terrific when they could pin their ears back and get in Cox’s face on third down.

· The short slant patterns are a big part of the WCO. Why can’t we complete those passes with any kind of regularity? Other teams kill opponents with that route, but Nebraska can’t connect on it consistently. A couple were dropped today and the tipped one went for an interception. The inability to complete that pass really changes the complexion of third and short-to-medium.

· Based on Callahan’s playcalling, I sometimes question the confidence he has in this team. After early success running the ball to the middle of the Auburn defense, we went away from that. Included in the move from the power running game was an ill-advised reverse. Is this just cutesy playcalling, or does Callahan not believe we can line up and beat a Top 10 team?

· At halftime, you had to know that the Auburn offense couldn’t look any worse. I lost any confidence in our chances to win as soon as Borges opened up the offense and started testing our corners.

· Did anyone else get a sense that the timing of our offense was off? I couldn’t put my finger on why, but it didn’t seem like all eleven guys were moving off the ball as a cohesive unit. Either that or way too many of our plays were really slow to develop.

· Marlon Lucky earned every yard he gained today. Unfortunately he didn’t show me much in his opportunity to be the feature back. I’m starting to get the feeling that what is coming between Lucky and a breakout season is a bunch of time spent with strength and conditioning coach Dave Kennedy. Next year starts tomorrow Marlon.

· I sincerely hope that Coach Cosgrove spends a lot of time this off-season working on how to defend teams on drives starting inside their own 1-yard line.

· Our receivers obviously had a difficult time getting open. I got really tired of watching Taylor force throws into coverage, eat the ball under duress, or worse yet, attempt to scamper on 3rd and long. How do we fix this? More talent? Better coaching?

· It probably didn’t make as big a difference as people are claiming, but if you are going to rush 11 on the last punt, shouldn’t the punter have had at least some difficulty getting the ball off? I was assuming we would see a heavy rush and perhaps even a roughing the punter penalty due to over-aggressiveness. Instead we saw a normal punt with no one back to receive it. Not the kind of finish I had in mind.

· Callahan’s worse coaching move might have been having Zac Taylor line up to help block that last punt. Or maybe, just maybe that was another of the many blunders by Pat “I thought you were dead” Summerall and Brian Baldinger.

· Overall, it wasn’t pretty if you are a Nebraska fan. I had us penciled in for a 9 or 10 win season, so I can’t be completely upset. And in the words of Cubs fans – There’s always next year.

Cotton Bowl Preview Video and Last Minute Stuff

December 31, 2006

Well, the game is sneaking up on us and I didn’t give it nearly the attention it deserves. I’ll chalk that up to time well spent catching up with friends and family. Here is a pretty nice preview video to help get you fired up as you enjoy the game from home, as seemingly no Husker fans have made the trip to Dallas.

Anyway here are just a few things to keep an eye on Monday:

· Much of the pregame chatter has concerned Auburn’s running game. Perhaps for good reason. The Tigers have thrown for more than 200 yards just four times all season. In addition, only two of those games came against BCS conference foes, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

· If the O-line protects Zac Taylor, Nebraska wins the game. In home losses to Arkansas and Georgia, Auburn had zero sacks.

· After averaging over 4 yards/carry in Big 12 play, does Nebraska have a running back healthy enough to produce like that versus Auburn?

· How might the lack of a healthy RB affect the playcalling? More throws? The emergence of the tight end as a legitimate receiving threat? New wrinkles or trick plays?

· Auburn beat Florida without scoring an offensive touchdown. Which team’s special teams are more special? Can our offense be our best defense?

Auburn Preview

December 26, 2006

Location: Auburn, AL
Enrollment: 23,000
Conference: SEC
Stadium: Jordan-Hare Stadium (Capacity: 87,451)
First Year of Football: 1891
All Time Record: 648-379-47 (.625)

Head Coach: Tommy Tuberville
6th year as head coach at Auburn: Career record at Auburn 51-24

Team Overview

Last Season: Despite losing Jason Campbell, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, the Tigers barely missed a beat in 2005. They finished 9-3 in 2005 after losing in the Capital One Bowl 24-10 to Wisconsin.

This Season: Auburn comes into the Cotton Bowl with a 10-2 record. The Tigers started the season 5-0 before losing at home to Arkansas 27-10. Auburn then reeled off 4 more wins, including a 27-17 victory over Florida. The Tigers finished the season with another home loss to Georgia and a win over archrival Alabama.

On Offense: Although it is not the most productive unit in the country, Auburn’s offense is one of the most balanced attacks. The Tigers rank 68th in the nation in total offense while producing 155 yards rushing/game and 178 yards passing/game. Auburn’s quarterback is the left-handed Brandon Cox. Cox has completed 153/250 of his passes for 2087 yards 13 TDs and 9 INTs. Cox is capable of being extremely accurate when given time, but often breaks down under pressure. He has also been forced to battle through nagging injuries, but should be healthy for the bowl game. Despite his own injury issues, the Tigers’ rushing attack is led by senior Kenny Irons. Irons is not the most physical runner, but is also difficult to bring down one-on-one. He excels in the open field and makes the most of running lanes. Irons has rushed for 861 yards and 4 TDs in 2006. Irons’ backup during the season has been sophomore Brad Lester who has produced 523 yards and 9 TDs. Lester will not be available for the Cotton Bowl, however, after being suspended for a violation of team rules. In Lester’s place expect to see true freshman Ben Tate. Tate who is Maryland’s all-time prep leader in rushing, has 369 yards rushing this year and averages a robust 7.4 yards/carry.

Auburn’s receiving corps entered the season as a talented, but inexperienced group. The Tiger receivers are deep as a unit and also possess a great deal of speed. The Tiger’s leading receiver is senior Courtney Taylor. Taylor is a big, strong receiver who is difficult to bring down in the open field. He has 48 catches for 634 yards and 2 TDs on the year. Behind Taylor is the athletic Rodgeriqus Smith. Smith has caught 26 balls for 452 yards and 4 TDs. Two other targets to look for are Prechae Rodriguez and TE Gabe McKenzie. Rodriguez is 6-4 with great deep speed and should develop into a consistent deep threat for Auburn. Tight end Tommy Trott is also a capable receiver who has 10 catches and 2 TDs in 2006. In addition, senior TE Cole Bennett may return from a broken ankle, which forced him to miss most of the season.

The Auburn offensive line came into 2006 with the need to develop depth behind a fairly solid starting unit. The Tigers’ biggest man up front is 6-8, 320 pound LT King Dunlap. Dunlap was known as a talented run blocker, who is continuing to improve at pass protection. The RT is senior Jonathan Palmer. Palmer is the most experienced member of the Tiger O-line. The guards are Tim Duckworth and Ben Grubbs. Grubbs is a good athlete and a dominating run blocker, while Duckworth is an all-conference performer. The center spot is manned by Joe Cope, a former walk-on who more than holds his own in the middle.

On Defense: The Tigers rank seventh in the nation in scoring defense (13.9 points) and 25th in total defense (297.5 yards). For the past few years they have relied upon the play of a group of undersized, but quick linebackers and 2006 has been no different. Auburn’s best defensive player is SLB Will Herring. Herring moved from FS to LB this season to take advantage of his speed and experience. Herring leads the team with 65 tackles, and is second on the Tigers with 7.5 TFL. Karibi Dede fills the MLB spot for Auburn. He is smallish at 6-0, 216, but is generally able to hold his own against the run. He has 56 tackles and 1 sack on the year. The WLB spot is held down by sophomore Merrill Johnson. He is another LB known for his speed and has shown an ability to get in the backfield. Johnson has 32 tackles and 3 QBH in 2006.

Headed into the season, Auburn thought it might have the SEC’s best secondary. David Irons and Jonathan Wilhite, who are among the best hitting DBs in the country, man the CB spots. Irons, who is the brother of RB Kenny Irons, has 45 tackles, 2 INT and 6 PBU on the year. Wilhite is steady, but has been known to take his share of risks. He has 24 tackles and 1 forced fumble this season. The safeties are Eric Brock and Aairon Savage. Savage has the size and speed of a corner, but is third on the team in tackles with 48 and also has 1 INT on the year. Brock is the team’s biggest DB at 6-1 213 pounds. He is tied for the team lead in INTs with two.

The Auburn front four is young and starts just one senior across the line. They are led by junior DE Quintin Groves. Groves finally became more consistent this season at getting into the backfield. He leads the team with 12 TFL and 9.5 sacks. The other DE spot is filled by senior Marquies Gunn. Gunn is physical and quick and has 7 TFL and 3 sacks. The DTs are Josh Thompson and Sen’Derrick Marks. Thompson the NG, is extremely powerful. He has 3.5 TFL, 1 sack and 2 QB hurries. Marks a RFr, is still raw, but has 8.5 TFL and 3.5 QBH.

Special Teams: The Tigers have one of the country’s best kicker and punter combinations. The kicker is Jon Vaughn who rebounded from a poor 2005 season to hit 19/23 FG attempts. Kody Bliss is the punter and averages 46.1 yards/punt, including placing 12 attempts inside the 20 yard line. In the return game, Tristian Davis is a dangerous kickoff returner who averages 26.4 yards/return.

Random Notes

Series History: This marks the fourth meeting between the two teams. Nebraska leads the all-time series 3-0.

I Can’t Believe I Looked It Up Either: Auburn is 5-5 all-time against teams from the Big 12. The Tigers record is 1-3 versus Big 12 teams in bowl games. Their lone win was a 24-3 Gator Bowl victory over Colorado in 1972.

I Can’t Believe I Looked It Up Either – Part II: Auburn’s first bowl game was the 1937 Bacardi Bowl, in which they tied Villanova 7-7. The Bacardi Bowl was played six times in Havana, Cuba. The 1937 game was the only one pitting two American CFB teams against one another. The previous games matched an American team with a team from Cuba. The Cuban teams went 1-4 against US college teams.

Six Degrees of Beano Cook: Beano is feeling optimistic. Nebraska beat Missouri. Missouri beat Ole Miss. Ole Miss beat Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt beat Georgia. Georgia…beat Auburn.

Position Changes

December 11, 2006

Several players have made position changes as Nebraska begins its Cotton Bowl preparations. Callahan and crew are clearly using the extra practice time to prepare for 2007. This is good to see and every practice counts when you are moving to a new spot. Here is a summary of some of the changes.

Matt Slauson RT to G
Ricky Thenarse CB to S
Victory Haines T to C
J.B. Phillips TE to FB
Jordan Picou C to NT

I’m very excited to see Thenarse back at safety. With Bowman returning and a few new recruits we may finally have a little depth at CB, so safety offers Thenarse a chance to get on the field a lot next year. Any other changes you guys would like to see?


November 12, 2006

We finally stole a game on the road and and in doing so managed to beat a formidable Big 12 South opponent. It was an amazing finish and one I won’t soon forget. You can hear Jim Rose’s call of the last play here. Second half struggles aside it was a big, big win.

Dr. D is in town and we decided to meet up with some of my girlfriend’s friends at a bar to watch the game. In a simple twist of fate, the bar we chose just happened to be an Aggie watch site. It certainly made for an interesting atmosphere.

The game was an emotional roller coaster and at some point Lauren decided to document my reactions. Here is a sample:

Pensive as it starts to slip away in the second half

Bitter smugness after A&M took the lead late.

Dr. D hates losing

Helping Zac Taylor find a receiver during the final drive.

Speaks for itself