2012 Fiesta Bowl: On The Dangers Of "Playing Not To Lose"

Lots of buzz today about the ending of last night's Fiesta Bowl, where Stanford coach David Shaw's conservative approach in the final minutes of the game may have cost the Cardinal one of the program's biggest win in school history.

Oklahoma State had tied the game with 2:35 remaining. After a touchback by Cardinal return man Ty Montgomery, QB Andrew Luck enters with more than two minutes left on the clock, three timeouts and 80 yards away from the winning score in a shootout with the Cowboys.

Luck comes in to complete four consecutive completions and drives the Cardinal offense into the red zone with three timeouts and 40+ seconds remaining. It would have seemed like the game was all but won for Stanford. All Shaw had to do was put the game in the hands of the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, who had completed 27-of-31 passes for 347 yards up until that point.

Or he could have put the game on the foot of a freshman kicker who had missed a 41 yarder earlier in the game ...

"David Shaw chose the latter and it was the wrong decision. I respect the job that Shaw has done this season and I admire the confidence he showed in Jordan Williamson, both at the end of regulation and in overtime. I can't imagine how disappointed Williamson must feel after missing three kicks, but it should've never come to that. Shaw shouldn't have had any reservations about letting Luck throw the ball after Taylor's 6-yard run on first down, but even if he had, it blew my mind that the Cardinal didn't hand the ball off a few more times to at least move into better field goal range. Taylor ran for a preposterous 177 yards, the Stanford offensive line was dominating, and a 36-yarder isn't exactly a chip shot. Stanford should've played for the touchdown."

"Our kids played hard," Shaw said. "They just didn't finish the game."

You didn't give them a fair chance to, Coach.

The New York Times' Paul Myerberg similarly took Shaw to task today, comparing last night's Fiesta Bowl finish with Boise State's loss to T.C.U. in a game where Broncos coach Chris Petersen made a similar head-scratcher decision that likely cost Boise State a shot at this year's BCS National Championship.

Over at Bruins Nation, the hope is that new coach Jim Mora will shed the failed, conservative mindset left behind by Rick Neuheisel and change the culture of U.C.L.A. football. The Boston College football program could use a similar lesson.

The Eagles football program has been playing it safe for years, but has managed to get by based on, I don't know, luck? But recently, BC has come up on the wrong end of close games more often than not.

From 2000-07, the Eagles went 11-2 in non-conference games decided by seven points or less, with the two losses both coming against Wake Forest back in 2003 and 04. Since then, BC has lost five straight non-conference games decided by seven or less -- a 16-14 loss to Vanderbilt (2008), a 20-16 loss at Notre Dame (2009), a 20-13 loss to Nevada (2010), a 24-17 loss to Northwestern (2011) and a 16-14 loss to Notre Dame (2011).

Tom O'Brien was 23-16 in games decided by seven or less over his 10 seasons as coach of the Eagles. Jagodzinski was 7-4 in similar games, while Spaz is now just 9-7 (or 10-7 if you include the bowl win over Navy on his resume). Though, frankly, a lot of those close games were much closer than they needed to be. See also: the 2009 Wake Forest (which was likely a L if not for some fumble luck), 2009 Virginia, 2009 Maryland, 2010 Duke, 2010 Virginia, 2011 N.C. State and 2011 Miami games.

Spaziani is cut from the TOB mold, and his conservative game plan and inability to manage the clock are well documented. It's probably too late to save Spaz and Coach Flip -- you can't teach an old dog new tricks -- but I hope that new OC Doug Martin and, I don't know, the next Boston College football head coach and Athletics Director (2013, please) take note of what happened last night in the Stanford game and all around college football.

If the Boston College football program is ever going to return to 8-10 win seasons and annual bowl trips, as a program we need to move away from the failed, conservative, defeatist mentality that pervades Spaz's game plans.

As a football program with few built-in advantages -- lack of fertile recruiting grounds, weather, high academic standards -- BC football needs every edge it can get. But if the coaching staff continues to employ conservative game plans and make boneheaded in-game coaching decisions, this will become one more factor holding BC football back from taking that next step.

If a program like Stanford, one that shares many similarities with BC, can make back-to-back BCS bowl game appearances on the arm of a future NFL quarterback, so can the Eagles. But Boston College isn't going to sniff that type of program success if they continue to play ultra-conservative and "play not to lose." It's just not going to happen.

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