Monday, September 14, 2009

How to Lose at Football 101

Michigan 38, Notre Dame 34

So, you’ve assembled a team full of star players. You’ve got a quarterback with two years of head-rattling experience under his belt, a corps of receivers that gives secondaries nightmares, an offensive line with over 100 combined starts, a nasty, blitzing defense, a solid secondary, a scholarship kicker, and a kick return unit rated best in the country last year.

You’re coming off a dazzling 35-0 home opener, and you’re headed on the road to face a hated rival who’s got the talent to beat you, but not the experience. Lee, Kirk, and that guy from Ohio State all picked you to win on College GameDay, because they believe your team’s experience will tip you over the edge of your opponent’s desperation.

Now how, you might ask, can you possibly take all this potential and twist it around into a devastating loss? Why, it’s easy! Just follow these quick, simple steps from How to Lose at Football 101, and before you know it you’ll be filled with your very own sense of crushing self-defeat!

Step One: Shoot yourself in the foot on special teams

Make sure your scholarship kicker has jittery enough nerves in his first game on the road in a hostile environment so that he shanks his first field goal wide right and nearly misses his first two PAT’s. It’s also helpful to make sure that at least once, perhaps late in the game when you’re ahead and everything’s riding on field position and the number of seconds left on the game clock, you draw an excessive celebration penalty that makes it really difficult for this kicker to blast the ball deep in the opponent’s territory and give your defense a chance to flex its muscles instead of sitting on its heels worrying about how the line of scrimmage is suddenly at the 40.

Also, after you’ve worked hard enough to field one of the best kick return units in the country, it might be good to ease up on the gas for one really crucial play early in the game, and just let your opponent steamroller over you with some superior blocking so that their kick returner can charge 94 yards down the field for a touchdown. It’s kind of like paying homage to Rocket Ismail, only backwards and in the way that gives your fans tiny ulcers instead of shrieking waves of euphoria.

And, now, this isn’t something you can really control, but if you can finagle it, you probably want to make sure all your opponents have way better punters than you do—punters that kick the ball so damn high your blindingly fast punt returner has no other option than to fair catch on every single kick. I mean, really, there’s no need to recruit these guys for your own team—it’s better just to scout out the intramural dorm teams and the men’s soccer team and see if you can’t find some gems that way. After all, no reason not to give your opponent the advantage in the kicking game. Treating them otherwise would just be darned unsportsmanlike.

Step Two: Shoot yourself in the foot on offense

You’ve got to play well, play with command, control the clock, win the time of possession battle, run the ball successfully, consistently beat your opponent in the secondary—and then completely blow every big play you make in one of three equally fantastic ways:

Drop the ball. I don’t care how good your receivers are, if you really want to lose the big game, you’ve got to make sure they drop the ball on a bunch of really crucial plays. Preferably right in a row. Sure, the drive still might end in a touchdown, but by that time you’ve burned critical time off the clock that will later allow your opponent to control the game and give you no time to make a last-second comeback, even though you’ve clearly got the talent to do so.

Penalize yourself constantly. If a play looks too good to be true—that’s because it is! Your linemen have committed holding. Make sure you move the ball back a good healthy ten yards and give the down another go. Also, while you’re at it, you might want to try a couple delay of game penalties. Nothing like mismanaging the clock to make a game more thrilling.

Turn the ball over. Preferably by handing the ball off to your promising sophomore running back approximately two plays after the announcers mention that your team hasn’t committed any turnovers for quite a while.

Now, this one is an extra bonus, but if you’ve got a little loose change rattling around in your pockets, you might want to try paying off the refs so they call back a touchdown run based off some questionable video footage where your player’s foot may or may not have been out-of-bounds around the twenty-yard line. You don’t have to pay them off for anything fancy—just make sure you let them know you’re not looking for incontrovertible video evidence; any old bit of video evidence will do.

Step three: Shoot yourself in the foot on defense

Play a solid game, but definitely let a freshman quarterback beat out one of your defenders for a 31-yard touchdown run when you’re in a one-on-one coverage scheme. Also make sure you give your opponent room to run on the ground, even if your secondary’s doing a decent job of denying them progress in the air.

Definitely shut them down for most of the second quarter, but give them some momentum back with a field goal just before halftime. Then make sure you leave lots of room for their halftime adjustments to steamroller you backwards down the field during their opening drive of the next half. (For best results, make sure your opponent always gets the ball first in the second half, regardless of who wins the coin toss.)

If you want to make the game more exciting, definitely intercept the ball at least once late in the fourth quarter, but in your opponent’s final drive, make sure you let them run the clock down and score. There’s nothing like a close game to make for a really satisfying loss.

Step four: Injuries

Now, these are harder to orchestrate, but if you’ve really got the grit and the determination, make absolutely sure that just before your potentially game-winning possession following an interception late in the fourth quarter, both your #1 star receiver and your #1 running back are injured. Not every team has this kind of luck, but if you’ve played your cards right during the rest of the game, this just might happen to you, too.

Step five: Intangibles

These are for the fans. Whenever you’re working on a really close, crushing, big-game loss, you’ve got to make sure you’re playing a really hated rival in a hostile environment where they wear really offensive colors, have cheerleaders with exceptionally ugly uniforms, and play a fight song with the unique and extra-special qualities of A) possessing the same musical complexity as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and B) displaying the same grating, skin-crawling, nails-on-a-chalkboard appeal as the “Spirit of Troy” song that USC plays ad nauseum in every single game, because apparently the Condom Band hasn’t had an original idea since Dr. Dye graduated and decided to pursue the head director’s job at a school where the band is actually, you know, good.

And, whatever else you do, make sure there’s absolutely no question that your team is actually full of experienced and talented athletes who would have had this game well in hand by the end of the first half if they hadn’t made so many mind-numbing, soul-splinching, life-shortening, sending-you-into-early-retirement kinds of mistakes. Because, let’s face it, your team was the team to beat. Your team was ranked. Your team should’ve been up twenty points at halftime and been basking in the glory of victory by the time the fourth quarter came around and the good-looking quarterback from California had his chance to take the field.

But no. By following these simple rules from How to Lose at Football 101, you’ve instead guaranteed your team and its loyal, ever-optimistic fans a week’s worth of frustrated, fever-inducing misery reminiscent of the ill-monikered swine flu.

This is our toast to you, and the denizens of defeat. So drink up!

It’s a bitter, swiney swill.

[Extra note: In all seriousness, I could not be more disappointed. There were so many chances to take this game in hand and we just blew them all. I hate to sound like a frustrated Nevada player, and there’s no need to undermine the obvious talent of Forcier or the sheer determination of Michigan’s last touchdown drive, but this game was, for the most part, not about how well Michigan played. It was about how poorly our players executed what should have been a very straightforward game. And, to our players’ credit, they did not completely lose their composure. But neither did they fix their mistakes.

I don’t expect to see us fall apart for the rest of the season. This is a team that knows it can play better. This is a team that knows it should have--not could have, but should have--beat Michigan, in every conceivable way.

And this is a team that, for all its progress, still falls short of being able to pull out a big win in a close game.

Where do we go from here? MSU just lost a stunner to Central Michigan, so I’m sure they’ll be rolling into South Bend feeling pissed. They’ve got a good enough run game to give our defense fits, and they should play well enough overall to give us a challenge—enough of a challenge, I think, to give our players a chance to redeem themselves.

If, that is, they can ever manage to shake off their own personal mental plague and finally start playing like the team they are supposed to be instead of the team that consistently refuses to meet its potential.

And this last thing, this most frustrating thing—this inability to meet our potential when we’ve got so much talent we should have our own panel of washed-up celebrity judges commenting on our performances every week [ohhh wait I guess that’s called SportsCenter]—I blame not on the players, but on the coaches. The “amateur psychology” part of coaching is what keeps your team on track mentally, or so I gather. And it looked to me like there was not enough adjusting at halftime to keep the team on track. And I’m sorry, but at this point we’re just Way Too Good for this sort of shit to keep happening.

There are no excuses—they’re out of excuses. And they know it.

If they don’t come out against MSU next week and prove how good they are…well, I’ll just say that Charlie’s in big trouble, and I guess they’re not the team I thought they were. And that’s just too bad—because after all they’ve gone through, they deserve to be.]

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