One of the interesting angles of Tuesday night’s BCS Championship Game was the coaching match-up, pitting two coaches who had assisted in previous title games, but had never been there as the head man. After review, it is pretty clear that the Gus Malzahn-Jimbo Fisher match up was a split decision, albeit a more satisfying result for Fisher, of course.
Having said that, Auburn was obviously better prepared going into the game. Malzahn and his staff had the Tigers armed with a superior X’s and O’s game plan — and a far better mindset as well. The Tigers were confident, yet angry — but under control just the same. They were at the perfect pique in the first half. The history of these games indicates that being favored, especially if you happen to have the Heisman Trophy winner on your team, can be a difficult amount of baggage to carry to kick-off. Florida State clearly felt that burden, and while Auburn was flying around and loose, yet intense, the ‘Noles were tentative, nervous, and fidgety. They dropped numerous big passes, jumped before the snap several times, and were clearly confused by the Tigers’ schemes and over-whelmed by their intensity.
Malzahn had inserted a shocking amount of early game and early count passing into his plan, and it caught FSU by surprise. On the other side of the ball, the Tigers employed a lot of late count shifts and unusual blitzes, leading to a nightmarish first half of pressure for quarterback Jameis Winston. At 21-3 late in the first half, Auburn looked bigger, better, faster, smarter and more motivated – and they owed that to their superior preparation. This thing was close to being out of control, and Fisher’s preparation would have been scrutinized.
But Jimbo did not spend years working for Bobby Bowden and Nick Saban without learning a thing or two. Facing a fourth down near midfield with just over 4 minutes left in the half, Fisher ‘mortgaged the farm’ (the phrase Bowden used to describe his fumble-rooskie strategy) with a quick reverse call from punt formation. The play worked for six yards and a first down, and Winston then drove the team down the field to cut the lead to 21-10 at half.
(I can only wonder what Bowden, who was the team’s honorary captain for the game, was thinking at the time. In post game interviews, Saban called it the key play in the game.)
Not only was the margin now manageable, but more importantly Fisher had reversed the coaching mojo, and the ‘Noles were suddenly confident. Auburn had more rushing yards, more passing yards and more time of possession in the half than did Florida State, and only the final minutes made the numbers respectable. In addition, a big factor was the punting game, which Auburn dominated leading to favorable field position. There was also a big FSU turnover, the half’s only one, leading to a short yardage TD drive.
The second half, however, would be different.
The scrimmage battle was close, with the ‘Noles gaining a slight edge in yardage. They were more confident, and not nearly as confused by Malzahn’s brilliant game plan. They also matched the Tigers’ intensity. Their highly rated receiving corps stopped dropping passes as well, a dynamic that was very important. FSU also dominated the special teams after halftime, scoring on a 103-yard kick-off return and making their only FG attempt. The Tigers had the ball three times with the score 21-10 or 21-13 – and a chance to put the game away – only to be turned back by FSU’s more confident defense. They also missed a mid range field goal in that time span.
In the final analysis, the game was decided by the lone non-offensive touchdown, the kick return by frosh Kermit Whitfield, reputedly the fastest player in all of college football. Irony, too, played its part, as the hero of the 109-yard Iron Bowl return, Chris Davis, was victimized by Kelvin Benjamin for the winning touchdown, two plays after he committed pass interference on third and goal.
As for the coaching, both staffs had their moments. Auburn won the 29-day preparation period by a wide margin. Malzahn can flat coach ’em up, and they are not like any other team in their schemes. Yet Fisher held his group together when all looked lost, and made the right adjustments under fire. He also rolled the right dice at the right time. There are many reasons to think these two teams might meet next year in the new play-off system as well – and Malzahn and Fisher are two of them.