New Year’s Day will mark the 10-year anniversary of the moment that transformed Chris Petersen’s reputation from obscure coach at a mid-major program to college football’s boldest tactician.
With the fearless gumption of a man more determined to win the Fiesta Bowl than avoid losing it, Petersen called for his quarterback to execute a schoolyard play in overtime. The Statue of Liberty turned out be as beautiful a piece of work as, well, the actual Statue of Liberty. It gave Boise State a 43-42 victory over Oklahoma and created a legacy at odds with Petersen’s no-frills demeanor.
He’d rather be known as the architect of fundamentally balanced offenses and defenses than a master magician plotting another escape act with smoke-and-mirrors. During a radio interview a few weeks ago, Petersen sounded frustrated.
“I think it’s so funny because people don’t get it, and I don’t want them to get it,” he said. “We’re talking about, how many plays, like 900 plays during a season, and we might run less than 20, maybe 15 deceptive-type plays. But everybody is thinking all we do is run trick plays.”
I won’t be surprised if Petersen eschews any “deceptive-type plays” Friday when Washington faces Alabama in the Peach Bowl. I’d also be disappointed.
Petersen doesn’t have the luxury of adhering to standard playbook against the defending national champions. The Crimson Tide’s obvious depth advantage suggests the challengers will take a beating by lining up conventionally for a toe-to-toe showdown.
Players on 12-1 football teams aren’t wired to think that way, of course, and the Huskies have taken a tone of we’ve-got-the-talent-to shock-the-world defiance.
“They’re good, but you can’t let a good a team get you away from what got you there,” quarterback Jake Browning said the other day. “We’re gonna do our deal, possibly have a few tweaks here and there, just like we do every other week. But you can’t let a good team get you out of your rhythm.”
Perhaps, but Alabama is not merely a good team. According to advanced statistical metrics assembled by the bright minds who understand advanced statistical metrics, Washington is looking at a New Year’s Eve date against the greatest team in modern college football history.
It’s a match-up calling for Petersen to think out of the box, early and often.
Start with the coin flip. Teams that win the flip almost always choose to defer possession until the second-half kickoff because of the psychological benefit, similar to that of owning the last at-bats in a baseball game.
If the Huskies call heads and the coin shows heads, they would be wise to accept the kickoff for two reasons.
Reason No. 1: The players on Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense, stocked with first-round draft choices bound for the NFL, will glance at each other and wonder: “Are these dudes crazy? They want the ball? Against us?”
Plant the seed that you’re crazy. Get that going.
Reason No. 2: The opportunity to score first while in possession of the ball is infinitely better than scoring first without it. An underdog scoring first in a national-championship semifinal game is not unlike an underdog landing the first jaw-jarring blow in a boxing match.
Did that just happen? Yeah, it just happened. Welcome to the jungle.
If the Huskies are able to draw first blood on, say, a Browning touchdown pass to the spectacularly explosive John Ross — not every first-round NFL draft choice will be wearing a red jersey — pressure will be put on an opponent not acclimated to pressure. And if the Huskies manage to add to their first-quarter lead with a field goal (dreaming here), it will require Alabama to compete in a catch-up mode ill-suited for a team that rarely finds itself in a catch-up mode.
Petersen hit the trick-play trifecta in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, saving all three for the conclusion of the 85-point shootout. I’m not envisioning the Peach Bowl as an 85-point shootout.
Be prepared for a defensive scrum on a field where points are precious, and first-quarter points are akin to face cards in a poker hand.
Petersen might not covet the label of trick-play genius, but those gutsy decisions he made 10 years ago vaulted him into the elite fraternity of big-time, power-conference coaches. He’s the Duke of Deception. No time to turn back now.
Here’s hoping the Huskies pull off the Statue of Liberty on their first snap and continue confounding the Crimson Tide through the 15th minute of the fourth quarter.
For those of us who’d give anything to be teenagers again on a schoolyard, deceptive plays aren’t cheap tricks. They’re evidence that when it comes to football, an imaginative mind can be more powerful than the biggest and strongest body.