Desperation versus cool calculation

It almost became the rout that wasn’t. Before the 62-28 finish, Saturday’s Yale-Towson game was a close 14-14 matchup. But two calls on fourth down plays in the second quarter turned the competitive contest into a protracted laugher for the Elis.

The first turning point came with just under 10 minutes to play in the first half with the Bulldogs stalled at the Towson 34-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-four, Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki opted to go for the first down — an obvious call with a 51-yard field goal attempt out of the question and a punt more than likely to go into the end zone and yield a net of just 14 yards.

Alvin Cowan ’04 took the snap and ran right, seemingly running an option play that had worked with mixed success early in the game (a botched pitch to David Knox ’06 had given Towson the ball at the Yale 15 in the first quarter and set up the Tigers’ first score). Instead of looking to toss the ball or keep it himself, however, Cowan stepped back and found a wide-open Alex Faherty ’05 down the right sideline for a 31-yard-gain down to the Towson three. Three plays later, Cowan strolled into the end zone, and Yale had the lead for good.

Instead of going the conservative/safe/likely-to-fail route and keep the ball on the ground, Siedlecki made the gutsy call, and it galvanized his team. The success of the Eli ground game (to wit — first possession: Robert Carr ’05 runs for 19 yards, Carr runs for eight, Cowan throws to Ralph Plumb ’05 for eight, Carr runs for 28, Carr runs for 4 yards and a touchdown) helped make the show of an option plausible to the defense, which was overzealous and susceptible to the big play. Siedlecki clearly saw this happening and he made the call that gave his team the best chance for success.

But just as Siedlecki’s call got his team going, a fourth-down call on the ensuing possession by Tigers coach Gordy Combs equally deflated Towson.

After Cowan’s run had put the Elis up by seven, Towson’s next drive came to a halt at its own 23-yard line. On fourth-and-10, Combs inexplicably attempted a fake punt — a call that worked out about as well as the history department’s online section registration. Admittedly, the fake caught Yale completely off guard and the receiver had no one near him. But Towson wideout Rocky Brown dropped the pass, and the Elis took over deep in Tiger territory. While Yale did not immediately capitalize, the field position game paid dividends later in the quarter when the Elis started near midfield and were able to pad their lead on a Cowan touchdown pass to Ron Benigno ’04.

As a Patriots fan, this immediately reminded me of Bill Parcells, Tom Tupa and Tedy Bruschi during the Pats’ AFC Championship season of 1996. The Pats hosted a 9-1 Denver team that had every legitimate reason to get to the Super Bowl. Parcells, then the Patriots’ coach, knew his team didn’t have much of a shot and that to be successful it would have to resort to trickery.

Like Combs, Parcells called for a fake punt on the Patriots’ first possession from their own 32-yard line. And, to boot, Parcells had the ball thrown to a linebacker with hands about as soft as sandpaper. Tupa aptly put the ball into Bruschi’s midsection, but apparently that was one of the linebacker’s blind spots. Denver took over and went on for a 34-8 rout.

By making this call, Combs did more damage to his team’s psyche than three colleges of freshmen did to Swing Space last year. Trailing by only a touchdown, there was no need for panic on the Towson sideline. This was not a sign of ingenuity or creativity — this was desperation. I’m no clairvoyant, but I can’t imagine the Towson players — especially those on the defensive side of the ball — were too thrilled by the coaching staff’s lack of confidence in their ability to keep the game close without resorting to what amounted to last-gasp tactics.

The difference between the two critical calls was that Yale’s was based on a calculated risk — it had set up the play by executing the option early in the game and making the defense think that another one was coming — while Towson’s was simply a one-shot gimmick that had great potential risk with minimal reward.

Punting the ball would have given Towson a chance to back Yale up and hopefully go into the half tied or trailing by just one score, with the second half’s opening kickoff coming their way. Instead, Yale went into the break ahead 35-14, and the rout was on.

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