There is More to Some In-Game Decisions than Meets the Eye

Before I get started, if you did not happen to see the football game between UCLA and Washington State this past Saturday night, I highly suggest you watch the Pac-12 Network’s 60-minute replay of it, you will not regret it.

With just under 22 minutes remaining in the game UCLA was trailing 49-17. Over the next 21 minutes UCLA scored 50 points and won the game 67-63 in regulation, overcoming the third largest deficit in college football history (side note UCLA already held the record for second biggest comeback -34 points- of all-time).

UCLA came into this game with a record of 0-3 and was coming off a 34- point loss to Oklahoma along with a lot of grumbling that 2nd year coach Chip Kelly needed to be fired. Washington State had just won their third game in a row and ascended to the 19th spot in the college football rankings. It would be an understatement to say that UCLA and Coach Kelly needed a victory in Pullman that night.

Sorry for the long lead in but I will be using this game, and more specifically, one decision that was made in this game, as a vehicle for this blog entry and felt some background was in order.

The play I am referring to came with 2 minutes and 27 seconds left in the game. UCLA was trailing by 3 points on 4th down and 5 yards to go with the ball on the WSU 17-yard line. They had the option of kicking a relatively short (34-yard) field goal to tie the game, or risk giving the ball back to WSU if they failed to gain at least five yards and earn a first down.

Most coaches I have been associated with would have kicked the field goal, but I knew Chip would go for it without hesitation. If all you cared about was giving yourself a chance to win that one game, kicking the field goal would be a good option. However, Chip has a bigger aim, building a winning program and you do that by walking your talk and believing in your players.

I was well aware that he would catch even more vitriol the next day if they did not earn a first down and went on to lose the game, but in that moment I said to my wife, ‘it is the right decision.’ Win or lose when changing a culture, showing you believe in your players means more than winning any one game.

Unfortunately, they threw an incomplete pass and did not get the first down. Although there is no way to know what would have happened had Kelly opted to go for the field goal and made it, experience tells me WSU would have gone on to win the game. Everyone thinks about strategy and what those menu cards coaches hold tell them to do but they miss the mental side of those decisions, which cannot always be accounted for by the analytics team.

Here’s how I see it, and why I say I believe WSU would have gone on to win. If Kelly elected to try the field goal, he would have sent the wrong message to his team and to the WSU team.

It would have signaled to his team, we are playing not to lose rather than playing to win. This would have depleted his own players internal drive to win and ruined their performance going forward. At the same time WSU would have been able to relax and catch their ‘mental breath’ as it would have communicated weakness on UCLA’s part to them.

Instead, his decision signaled belief and trust in his players (something a team without a win needs more than anything at that point) and energized them. Meanwhile WSU tightened up more and I believe the combination of WSU’s players fears and UCLA’s players added desire is what enabled UCLA to cause the fumble that lead to their winning this game.

People like to jump to conclusions and many are now calling this the turning point for UCLA. These are likely some of the same people who were calling for Chip’s head a week ago. Turning points are usually only accurately seen when looking back rather than forward.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming weeks for this UCLA team. All I can say is that this is an important cornerstone in the building of the culture Chip is trying to instill with his young team. They could get blown out this weekend as progress rarely comes in a straight line. But regardless of what unfolds they have a new base to continue building on now.

One final note… I heard from several UCLA fans the next day who were relieved the Bruins won the game, but could not get over how stupid Chip was for not kicking the field goal when he had the chance to tie. All I could say to them was “stupid is as stupid does.”


You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc


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