Commentary

Dash of coaching blunders

Originally Published: October 5, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (field-storming instructions sold separately in Boulder [1], where they got a little too carried away Saturday after beating a 1-4 team):

It's a strange and unsettling time when Texas and Penn State are both unranked, while Nevada is. But nothing is anywhere near as strange and unsettling as what transpired in Baton Rouge on Saturday, which is why we begin The Dash by calling for an exorcism.

Got a devil's haircut under The Hat

In Satan's lair, there is a lockbox with the words "LES MILES (2)" written on it. Inside is the LSU coach's soul.

There is no other possible explanation. The Hat clearly has made a deal with Lucifer that allows him to win nearly 80 percent of his games as coach of the Tigers, capture a national title and make more money than all but a tiny fraction of working Americans. And doing it with a unique flair for coaching lunacy in pressure situations.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDespite near disaster, Les Miles walked away with a grin -- again.

The latest installment, of course, was the Tennessee-LSU game (3) on Saturday in Baton Rouge. The winning drive contained this masterpiece sequence -- LSU timeout, incomplete pass, delay of game, LSU timeout -- but that ultimately was dwarfed by the 30 seconds of anarchy that ended the game.

The Dash's mind reeled while watching the Tigers simply … fail … to act … as the seconds drained away. Were they really doing this again? Would the game really end with LSU on the 1-yard line, down by four points, running a catastrophic fire drill of a final play?

Alas, no. There was a Satanic contract to uphold, and half of the Volunteers' travel squad was on the field, and so there was an untimed do-over that of course went The Hat's way. And thus LSU won 16-14, in a game that set football coaching back to somewhere in the 19th century.

When quarterback Jordan Jefferson (4) was tackled at the Tennessee 1, there were 28 seconds left in the game. It's a terrible shame that CBS showed no video of Miles himself during the ensuing half-minute waltz of ineptitude. What, The Dash is dying to know, was he doing?

Ordering a pizza?

Curling into the fetal position?

Staring at the dwindling scoreboard clock in frozen panic?

We're reasonably certain he was not signaling for Jefferson to spike the ball, though that's exactly what he should have been doing. Thing is, that's what Miles did frantically signal Jefferson to do in a loss at Ole Miss (5) last year, when it was the wrong move.

But we don't need video to surmise what Miles was doing. He'd tuned his headset frequency to 666 and put in the call.

"Ol' Scratch? Yeah, Les here. Listen, I don't have a lot of time to talk -- my damn strong football team is about to blow one to what might be the worst Tennessee team in the last 22 years. And I'm already the least-popular unbeaten coach in the country.

"Remember that deal we have? Right. I need to call in another favor on that."

And so Tennessee lined up with not 12 but a suspiciously unlucky 13 players on the field. That rampant overpopulation of the defense nullified the wild shotgun snap which seemingly ended the game as an LSU defeat.

And the do-over TD sent Miles to the postgame press conference as a winner for the second time after massacring clock management (see below for the other). There, with his mind still off somewhere in the Lesmosphere, he spoke before taking questions for four minutes in his usual baroque and bewildering way.

"I think this team will force out some of the fat, and get to the leaner meat," he declared at one point.

The place to start trimming fat might be the coaching staff -- but The Dash and everyone else knows you cannot fire an undefeated coach. So while we wait to see whether the Mad Hatter can continue to fool all of the people all of the time, let's make out the list of thank-you notes he should write:

[+] EnlargeDerek Dooley
Chuck Cook/US PresswireDerek Dooley and the Vols have had a few issues to be upset about this season.

Derek Dooley (6). Les might have met his match in late-game tomfoolery. A week before Dooley had 13 men on the field against LSU, he had 10 men on the field on back-to-back plays against UAB during overtime. Dools, the correct answer is 11. (The point has been made that on the key play against LSU, the officials might not have provided Tennessee adequate time to match substitutions with the Tigers. That could be true. But Dooley acknowledged Monday that his team's communication in that situation was poor.)

T-Bob Hebert (7). The LSU center and son of old Cajun quarterback Bobby Hebert won the game for the Tigers by squeezing off that errant snap with three seconds left instead of waiting for a signal from Jefferson. That triggered the penalty on the Vols, and staved off the potential riot that would have occurred if LSU had failed to even once hike the ball in the final 30 seconds. Never has a bad snap been so valuable.

Zack Pianalto (8). If the North Carolina tight end had come up with either of two passes in the end zone on the final two plays against LSU to open the season, The Hat would have had the distinction of blowing a 20-point lead to a team with 13 suspended players -- most of whom were the best guys on the roster. (Les helped set the complacent tone for that game when, leading 30-10 with 1:04 left in the first half, LSU dithered away 49 seconds running three plays -- and that included a stopped clock for a first down. After failing to put much effort into scoring, the Tigers' offense went into cold storage in the second half. And has never really come out.)

Matt Flynn and Demetrius Byrd (9). They teamed up for the other great bailout play in Miles' career, with the throw-and-catch to beat Auburn in 2007 with one second remaining. If the pass is tipped or even falls incomplete, the game probably ends -- despite LSU being in field goal range and possessing an unused timeout.

West Virginia (10). The Mountaineers' epic gag at home against Pittsburgh in '07 opened the back door for LSU to slip into the BCS National Championship Game with two losses.

The calendar (11). It just so happened that the championship game that year was played in New Orleans, offering a healthy home-field advantage to LSU. Playing an athletically unspectacular Ohio State team in that game didn't hurt, either.

While Miles has many people to thank for his many lucky breaks, he has one (besides himself) to blame for the putrid condition of his offense -- coordinator Gary Crowton (12). Under Crowton, LSU's offense isn't just slow to respond with the clock running out, it's slow almost all the time.

The Tigers are averaging 62 plays per game and 30:18 time of possession. That comes out to about two plays per minute. Oregon (13), in contrast, is squeezing off 81 plays per game in 27:57 time of possession -- 2.9 plays per minute. Even a devoted clock-killing offense like Air Force (14) is getting more plays per game (74) and more plays per minute (2.3) than LSU.

And there is the passing efficiency of the Tigers. Or, more accurately, inefficiency. There are 18 unbeaten teams left in the country, and 17 of them rank in the top 56 nationally in that category. Then there is LSU, checking in at No. 116.

Unless the Tigers have a rapid offensive renaissance, all of this will catch up with them -- and probably soon. The next game is at Florida (15) on Saturday, and Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas loom later. If LSU finishes with a third straight season of at least four losses, not even a pact with Satan might save Les Miles.

Coaching dishonor roll, cont.

Les Miles and Derek Dooley weren't the only coaches who had inglorious weekends. Five who joined them on the bad list:

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Reese Strickland/US PresswireJoe Paterno walked away from going for it late against Iowa.

Joe Paterno (16), Penn State. Just because he's the winningest coach of all-time in FBS doesn't mean he's infallible. Down 17-3 at Iowa and facing a fourth-and-6 at his own 46 with less than five minutes remaining, Paterno basically surrendered. He sent in the punt team. Hard to blame him for lacking confidence in an offense that has failed to score a touchdown in two games against ranked opponents -- but don't you have to at least try?

Ron Zook (17), Illinois. The Zooker's Illini played an inspired game against Ohio State, but he got overly conservative while trailing 17-10 late in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-7 from the Buckeyes' 13-yard line with 4:40 remaining, Zook sent in the field goal unit. The Illini made the field goal -- and quite predictably never got back into scoring range again. Ohio State drove for a touchdown on the following possession.

Greg Schiano (18), Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights lost at home to Tulane, pretty well completing their backslide from the halcyon 11-2 days of 2006. That drops Schiano's career record to 57-57, and it might dip back below .500 by season's end -- even in a dreary Big East.

Lane Kiffin (19), USC. Coach Peter Principle impressed nobody in winning his first four games as coach of the Trojans, and he followed that up by losing to fellow former Pete Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian and Washington at home. And now the schedule gets challenging in a deep Pac-10.

Mike Locksley (20), New Mexico. The leading candidate for a pink slip in 2010 came the closest to winning a game that he has in five tries this season. His Lobos still lost to a Conference USA opponent by 18 points. At home. Locksley's head-coaching record is now 1-16, with a 2009 altercation with an assistant thrown in for good measure. But there is always hope around the corner in the form of the following.

Land of Disenchantment Bowl

Bottom 10 fetishists and others who enjoy a low-impact pillow fight will have their Game of the Year on Saturday:

Winless New Mexico (21) at winless New Mexico State (22).

Bad football rarely gets this bad. There is serious potential here.

The Lobos have been outscored by an average of 40.4 points per game. The Aggies have been outscored by an average of 34.3 points per game.

[+] EnlargeAna Ivanovic
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesDashette Ana Ivanovic can even cheer up a winless team.

Of the 17 major statistical categories kept by the NCAA, New Mexico ranks worse than 100th in the 120-team FBS in 15 of them. In a remarkable display of well-rounded futility, the Lobos' defense is last in the nation in points allowed (52 per game) and their offense is last in the nation in yards per play (3.7).

But New Mexico State is down to the challenge.

The Aggies rank worse than 100th in 13 of 17 stat categories. They are last in the nation in total defense, sacks and tackles for loss. In fact, they have not yet recorded a sack in 2010.

Believe it or not, tickets are available. For a television option, The Dash suggests the Oxygen channel pick this one up. But at least somebody is going to win a game.

The other winless teams, and when they might crack the win column:

Akron (23). Record: 0-5. The worst part: Zips actually lost Sept. 11 to Gardner-Webb, an FCS team that hasn't won since. When they'll win: Oct. 23 at home against Western Michigan.

Western Kentucky (24). Record: 0-4. The worst part: Hilltoppers own the nation's longest losing streak, at 24 games. When they'll win: Oct. 16 at home against Louisiana-Monroe.

Eastern Michigan (25). Record: 0-5. The worst part: There are only two home games left, and none until Oct. 30. When they'll win: Next year.

Florida International (26). Record: 0-4. The worst part: Margin of defeat has increased every game, from five to seven to 14 to 27. When they'll win: Saturday against Western Kentucky, in the other Pillow Fight Game of the Week.

For suffering fans of the above schools, we offer Dashette Ana Ivanovic (27) to cheer you up.

Now how about a couple of good in-state rivalry games?

Two matchups that are diametrically opposed to the Land of Disenchantment Bowl:

[+] EnlargeGreg Jones
AP Photo/Al GoldisGreg Jones and the Spartans hit the road to face rival Michigan Saturday.

Michigan State at Michigan (28). The Spartans have been the pluckiest team of the season so far, beating Notre Dame and Wisconsin with large doses of coaching boldness and overcoming the two-game absence of head coach Mark Dantonio. But now the Spartans finally play a road game, after four in East Lansing and hosting Florida Atlantic in Detroit. They still won't leave the state of Michigan until Game No. 8, at Northwestern, on Oct. 23. If they're still unbeaten by then, look out. League heavy Ohio State is nowhere on the schedule.

Key question: Can playmaking Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones and his teammates cut off the running lanes of superfreak Denard Robinson?

Dash pick: Michigan State 35, Michigan 34.

Florida State at Miami (29). The Hurricanes are the anti-Sparty, having played just one home game. They went 2-1 on a challenging three-game road swing at Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Clemson, probably establishing themselves as the team to beat in the ACC. But maybe that team is the Seminoles, who have stabilized after that thrashing at Oklahoma on Sept. 11. If they win this game on the road, Jimbo Fisher has his first signature victory of the post-Bowden era.

Key question: Can Miami quarterback Jacory Harris (eight interceptions the past three games) throw the ball to the right team for an entire game against a decent opponent?

Dash pick: Miami 24, Florida State 20.

Bus update: Regaining momentum

The Dash's Boise State Bus (30) added satellite TV and a minibar this past weekend, which was a good one for the Broncos in their drive for the BCS National Championship Game.

Yes, despite being bypassed by Oregon (31) in the polls. That was pretty much inevitable if the Ducks convincingly handled Stanford on Saturday -- and they did.

And despite losing a point to Ohio State (32) in the laundry-addicted USA Today coach's poll. (The same poll that still ranks Florida ahead of Arkansas, despite the fact that the Razorbacks played Alabama 21 points closer than the Gators all of one week apart.) Somehow, voters in that poll believe the Buckeyes' sleepwalk past Illinois was worth more than a 59-point Boise victory. (Boise gained 15 points on Ohio State in the more sensible AP poll.)

[+] EnlargeBoise State
Jody Gomez/US PresswireThe Broncos got a lift Saturday in their drive for Glendale.

The Broncos are going to need some help from those two teams in the form of a defeat or some significant struggles over the coming weeks. But that can happen.

The other thing that needs to happen is an enhancement of Boise's overall schedule -- and that did transpire Saturday. Virginia Tech (33) continued to restore its credibility by beating previously undefeated NC State on the road. Nevada (34) remains unbeaten and ranked, keeping alive a potential major showdown with the Broncos on Nov. 26. Utah State showed it is no longer a joke, beating BYU so badly the Cougars fired their defensive coordinator the next day. And Oregon State (35) beat Arizona State.

What didn't help: San Jose State losing to FCS UC-Davis.

Boise's strength of schedule remains in Sagarin's top 40 at No. 38. That's higher than fellow unbeatens Oregon (57), Auburn (72), TCU (78), Ohio State (99), Nebraska (134) and Utah (137).

And for every SEC snob who sneers at Boise's theoretical ability to play every week in that league, take a look at the mighty Eastern Division. It went 0-5 last week, with South Carolina upholding divisional pride by not playing.

Think the Broncos couldn't win the East? Think again.

While The Dash readily acknowledges that Alabama looks like the best team in America right now, the battle is lively for No. 2 -- and all that really matters is finishing in the top two. After this past weekend, The Dash has the Broncos second, Oregon a close third and Ohio State fourth.

So the Bus rolls on, undeterred. Still time (and room) to climb aboard.

Last interception pool

After saying goodbye to UNLV's Omar Clayton (threw a pick against Nevada) and Indiana's Ben Chappell (threw one in an otherwise remarkable 64-pass, 480-yard performance against Michigan), we're down to two LIP combatants. They are:

Terrance Cain (36), Utah. Like several ranked teams, Cain was aided by not playing Saturday. He remains interception-free and atop the NCAA pass efficiency chart, but he's only thrown 49 passes in three games as a backup and could fall out of the rankings if he doesn't throw enough passes when the Utes play Iowa State.

Ryan Katz (37), Oregon State. Katz had his best game of the season against Arizona State, completing 19 of 29 passes for 260 yards, two touchdowns -- and, of course, zero interceptions. If he can go oskie-free at Arizona on Saturday, he may win the LIP trophy.

Putting out an APB for …

… Former Arizona defensive lineman and Desert Swarm linchpin Rob Waldrop (38). Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the 1993 Outland Trophy winner, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Mississippi State quarterback hero Wayne Madkin, is alive and well and living in Birmingham, Ala. Mississippi State and SEC sources inform The Dash that Madkin is part owner of a company that distributes DVD vending machines and is a fairly regular presence at Mississippi State, where one of his machines is located in the student union. State fans still give him a fond ring of the cowbell when he's around, in no small part because of his heroics in leading the Bulldogs' winning drive to beat Arkansas 22-21 in 1998. (Check YouTube for the video highlights, it's an underrated thriller.)

Point after

When hungry and thirsty in the football-obsessed state of Alabama, The Dash has a pair of strong recommendations.

First, dinner in Birmingham at the Summit Tavern (39), a classy joint where the steaks are good and the beer list is commendable.

Then, spend a game-watching Saturday spent at the downtown fixture Houndstooth (40) in Tuscaloosa. Named for obvious reasons, it has a houndstooth hat occupying a place of honor atop a pillar behind the bar. On the walls are a jillion TVs, and at noon on Saturday the place had nine different games going at once. Remember, you're not there for the plush environs; you're there to watch football. You will not be disappointed.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.