With Little To Lose, Coaches, Players Get Creative In Bowl Games

Dec 31, 2013
Originally published on December 31, 2013 6:56 pm
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There are 35 college football bowl games on the schedule this year. We'll be a good two-thirds of the way through them by the time the Chick-fil-A Bowl ends this evening. And while there's a good deal of prestige associated with winning the Rose bowl, for example, or beating a highly-ranked opponent, many bowls feature un-familiar opponents facing off in a game with a funny name. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, that often yields results that are downright strange.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The college football regular season is about discipline toughness, sacrifice, and order. Bowl games are the local news during sweeps weeks: housewives tearing it up on a Vegas weekend. They're the rumspringa of sport. Or as Chris Brown notes...

CHRIS BROWN: A lot of weird stuff just seems to happen in these games.

PESCA: Brown is the whiz kid behind smartfootball.com, which expertly diagnoses and diagrams football plays and schemes. He'll watch a team adhere to a conservative game plan week after week of the regular season and then...

BROWN: Then, all of a sudden, it's bowl time and there comes the double reverse pass and, you know, putting a receiver at quarterback who's throwing it down field and it, you know, it's kind of fun, but it's definitely, you know, your cyber self is like, is that the team I thought they were?

PESCA: In fact, the very first game of this bowl season couldn't have been crazier. The Colorado State Rams mounted an epic comeback or, as ESPN described it, the Washington State Cougars suffered...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A colossal meltdown in the dying moments of the game by the Cougars.

PESCA: Afterwards, the Rams pulled that old playground staple, the Statue of Liberty play, to tie the game. The final score was 48 to 45. That game had everything we've come to associate with bowls: lots of offense, trick plays and risk-taking. But here's the thing: It turns out that scoring actually goes down during bowl games. Bill Callahan covers the statistical side of college football for Football Outsiders and ESPY Nation. He notes that this year teams have been averaging fewer than 26 points a game in the bowls where they scored 28.6 points in the regular season.

BILL CALLAHAN: For every one memorable 49 to 42 game, we get a - some 17 to 13 slog that we don't really watch.

PESCA: But Callahan confirms trick plays, risky plays and aggressive play calling do abound in bowl games. Brian Kelly, coach of Notre Dame, says that bowl games are good laboratories for risk-taking.

BRIAN KELLY: During the season, you know, it's a marathon to a conference championship or, you know, a BCS game whereas this is a one, you know, one game.

PESCA: But why? Wouldn't teams want to simply adopt the most advantageous strategy? If trick plays work, why don't we see more of them in the regular season? Well, for one thing, coaches usually have weeks to prepare for a bowl game and as Rutgers Coach Kyle Flood says...

KYLE FLOOD: Maybe sometimes you give football coaches too much time and we get a little bit creative.

PESCA: When uttered during the Pinstripe Bowl's pre-game press conference, Flood's statement sounded self deprecating. But when you consider this play as described by ESPN the coach wound up coming off as simply factual.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Throws it into traffic and it's intercepted at the goal line by Russell. So they tried a trick play and it backfires badly as...

PESCA: But even the failed trick play points to the fact that there are different incentives at work in bowl games. Losing isn't as crushing. Also, slow methodical marches down the field are much less likely to enhance a team's brand via a "SportsCenter" highlight, points out Smart Football's Chris Brown.

BROWN: So you do wonder if every coach is sort of trying to say, hey, look, I'm wide open and I'm creative and I can do all those things, too.

PESCA: In college bowl games, creativity counts. And while Vince Lombardi used to say that winning was the only thing, Lombardi never played or coached in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl or any other college bowl game. Mike Pesca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.