Extra point: On a strategy that wasn’t used in The Citadel’s win over Gardner-Webb

There was a situation in Saturday’s game between The Citadel and Gardner-Webb that I wanted to briefly discuss, but which did not quite fit into my game review. It’s a very small, dorky point, but because of that it is arguably perfect for a blog post.

If you watched the game, you might be thinking that I’m going to talk about Brent Thompson’s decision to bring out the field goal unit on 4th-and-2 from the Gardner-Webb 28-yard line with 32 seconds to play. The Citadel was ahead 28-24 at the time, and an argument could be made that trying to pick up the first down was a higher percentage play instead of attempting a field goal. It’s open to debate, but another situation just a few plays earlier caught my attention even more.

Gardner-Webb took over at its 15-yard line with 2:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, trailing 28-24. Three plays later, the Runnin’ Bulldogs faced a 4th-and-23 from their own 2-yard line, with less than a minute remaining in the game.

G-W head coach Carroll McCray was left with two decisions: to go for it on 4th-and-forever from the shadow of his own end zone, or to punt and use his three timeouts on defense to try to get the ball back one more time.

McCray elected to punt, and in hindsight that wasn’t a bad call. Gardner-Webb did get the ball back, still needing a touchdown, at its 37-yard line with 18 seconds remaining. Three plays later, Kevin Graham sacked Tyrell Maxwell, and the game was over.

Above, I wrote that McCray was left with only two decisions on 4th-and-23 from his own 2-yard line…or was he?

There was actually one other option available.

Gardner-Webb could have taken an intentional safety.

Yes, I typed “intentional safety”. Yes, I know Gardner-Webb was trailing.

However, a safety in that situation would have made the score 30-24 in favor of The Citadel, so the math wouldn’t have changed much for Gardner-Webb. The Runnin’ Bulldogs would have still needed a TD.

After taking the safety, G-W could have punted the ball back to The Citadel, or it could have tried an onside kick. If Gardner-Webb had elected to punt, it would have almost certainly improved its field position on defense; in the game itself, The Citadel took over on the G-W 36-yard line after Runnin’ Bulldogs punter Andrew Komornik booted the ball out of his own end zone.

I realize it seems a bit counter-intuitive to give the other team points when your team is trailing. How many coaches would have taken an intentional safety in that situation? How many coaches have ever taken an intentional safety in that situation? Well, I can think of one.

Bill Belichick.

With 2:51 remaining and the Broncos leading, 24-23, the Patriots lined up to punt from their 1. But rather than have Ken Walter kick and give Denver prime field position, Belichick and special teams coach Brad Seely had long snapper Lonie Paxton…snap the ball out of the end zone.

The intentional safety made it 26-23, Denver, and set up a Patriots free kick from the 30. Deltha O’Neal misplayed Walter’s kick, and Denver took over on its own 15. “That’s 25, 30 yards of field position,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said…

…After forcing the Broncos to go three and out, the Patriots took possession at their 42 with 2:15 remaining and one timeout. They wouldn’t need it. In six plays and 1:30, Brady drove his team 58 yards, 42 coming on completions to Faulk. On first down from the Denver 18, Brady intentionally threw behind Givens at the end zone, who made the adjustment and the catch just inside the left pylon.

Belichick explained afterwards why he took the safety:

We had our timeouts left, so we went ahead and took the safety. We were hoping to get some field position there with the three timeouts and the two-minute warning still outstanding, hoping we could get the ball back and then be able to at least have a shot at the field goal to tie it.

The circumstances in that 2003 Patriots-Broncos game were a little different than those on Saturday night in Boiling Springs. New England had an extra timeout (because of the two-minute warning), more time, and didn’t need a touchdown to win the game. Still, the principle is the same.

Make no mistake, I’m not being critical of Carroll McCray in the least for what he actually did. I think he made a very reasonable decision, all things considered.

I just wonder if taking the intentional safety, even while trailing, may have been the way to go.

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