Dabo Swinney: Courageous or Classless?
The Confidential followed this game by participating in the game day thread over at TNIIAM, the great Syracuse blog. A big area of debate was Dabo Swinney’s decision to go for it on 4th and goal with less than 30 seconds remaining in the first half, up 35-7. Even on the Syracuse site, there was debate as to whether it was courageous or classless. Let’s discuss
The set up. Clemson was leading Syracuse 35-7 with fourteen seconds to go in the first half. The ball was just outside the 5-yard line. Most coaches at all levels would kick the field goal and go into halftime with the 38-7 lead. You keep the momentum and it is a fairly low risk play–just outside an extra-point. Instead, Dabo Swinney decided to go for it, leading to a sack of Tajh Boyd.
The case for courageous. Clemson had steamrolled Syracuse all day. A 28-point lead is not fully insurmountable will a whole half to play (need examples?). A 35-point lead would have been demoralizing. With the mismatched talent levels, Syracuse was not likely to keep Clemson out of the end zone. Clemson needs style points, not just wins. They need to destroy teams early and often. If Syracuse fans do not like it, blame their players for not stopping it.
The case for classless. You are already up 35-7. Your offense has been unstoppable. Your defense has given up on touchdown, a fluke 66-yard touchdown run. Why worry about having to get a 35-point lead? Perhaps it was in response to some perceived chatter by Syracuse players this week. Was that to teach them a lesson? Was there resentment about Syracuse being chosen instead of a school not rebuilding its football program? It was such an atypical decision that it just does not make sense. But when does it ever make sense to give up a chip shot 23-yard field goal to try for a 5+ yard touchdown? If the score was 20-10, you’d take the points. It was only because of the large lead that one could even justify not taking the relatively-sure three points. So you are using the large lead to justify taking a risk that you wouldn’t normally take. That is like switching to the full-court press when up 30 in a basketball game. Lest there be any doubt, this is what Syracuse Scott Shafer’s reaction was to the 4th down stop:
In fact, the Confidential believes that the real issue is that it was, if nothing else, not football smart. Clemson was up 35-7. Going up 38-7 makes it either a 5-score game or requires Syracuse to go for two on three of the four touchdowns it would need to score just to tie the game. What are the odds of Syracuse having 4, much less 5, MORE TD drives than Syracuse in the second half, given what transpired in the first half? Slim to none.
Even worse, the move fired up the Syracuse team unnecessarily. Instead of licking their wounds, Swinney gave the Syracuse players a reason to rally and come out looking for fire. Syracuse tackled harder. They punished Boyd on a sack, injuring (fortunately) his non-throwing hand. The longer Syracuse stayed “in the game,” the longer Boyd and the starters would have to play. So, by missing out on three points and firing up Syracuse, both of those realities were extended.
And yet even with Syracuse gaining all that momentum, Clemson still outscored Syracuse in the second half. Why incur the possible negative karma by trying to “run up the score,” when a field goal is just as damaging really.
The Confidential is not sure whether it should go down as classless, but it definitely was not courageous. And it certainly was not smart. And maybe you don’t believe in football karma, but the Confidential does. In the future, Swinney should just kick the field goal. A 95% chance of a field goal makes more sense than a 75% chance of a touchdown–especially when you are up comfortably.
What do you think about Swinney’s decision? Explain.