According to the coaches it wasn't a tough decision. They actually have a chart that tells them when they can take a knee based on how much time is left in the game and how many timeouts are left. The chart is not unlike the chart coaches use to determine whether or not they should go for two in various situations. In this case the chart said that to completely run out the clock and not punt that they have to wait until 1:10 to take the knee.
I don't agree with the decision, but I completely understand it. The Cats did not want to punt and risk a long return or a blocked kick. If the Cats took a knee right then and there they would have had to have punted the ball away with about :20 left on the clock.
In many ways the play made sense. How many times has your team needed to pry the ball away in the final moments only to have a back safely hit the pile and safely be brought down? In the past few years I can name a few instances when a punt return in the final seconds led to a win, but you have to go back to Joe Pisarchick to remember a fumble costing a team in this situation.
The Cats ran a simple dive play with their most sure handed runner. Gilbert Harris hit the pile and appeared to have a pretty firm hold on the ball. Everything appeared to be working out fine when the Cougars' Pat Bennett jarred the ball loose with his helmet. Despite Harris' good grip the ball popped straight up and Washington State wound up recovering the ball. Three plays later Washington State scored and the game was essentially over.
Of course it is a case of Monday Morning Quarterback. Had Harris held onto the ball no one questions the play. If the Wildcats have the punt blocked or have the kick run back, the fans are screaming about why the team is kicking the ball and not trying to run the clock out.
In hind-site it is a no-win situation. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
If the Cats do take the knee they have to punt, but there is not much time for WSU to do anything. The Cougars needed a touchdown and had no timeouts. They basically had to have a big play.
By taking three straight knees the Cats would have had to punt the ball away with about :20 seconds left. The kick would eat another five seconds off the clock. That would have given the Cougars about 15 seconds to work with at the point the Cougar punt returner would have fielded the kick. The odds were very much against Washington State scoring a touchdown, but it was just 1999 when the Cats won the same kind of game on a last second Hail Mary against the Cougars in Pullman.
In many ways the odds were against the run. A Cat Tracks' message board post mentioned that the Wildcats have lost fumbles seven times on 143 carries, that means the Cats lose a fumble once every 20 carries or so. Basically they lose a fumble on 5% of the carries. The number becomes more disturbing when you look at how often the Cats put the ball on the turf. The Wildcat runners have actually fumbled 11 times on 143 carries, once every 13 carries.
(Note the Cats have lost eight fumbles, but one was by a receiver.)
Conversely, the Cats have had just one punt blocked in 23 attempts and that ball still crossed the line of scrimmage and went down field. The Cats have not surrendered a punt return for a touchdown all season and are giving up an average of just 9.5 yards a return.
So what does this mean? Not much. It means that I had enough time to pour through stats and try to make a case for taking a knee.
In some regards the fact that the two teams fumbled eight times up to that point makes you wonder why they would run the ball again, but on the other hand you have to think that it couldn't happen again.
I would have taken the knee.
Maybe it is just hindsight. At the time I was not looking at the clock and did not question why they ran. At the time I thought there was closer to 1:50 on the clock, than 1:30. I spent a good five minutes working the math to find out how much time would have been left on the clock had the Cats punted.
I had five minutes. The Cats had five seconds and consulted the chart.
It is odd that this week fans are discussing the Cats lack of conservatism. Last week the Cats played it safe and lost. Against Wisconsin they drove deep into Wisconsin territory but then ran three times up the middle to set up the long field goal in the rain. Last week the fans wanted at least one pass and most were upset that the Cats did not try to at least get closer for the field goal try.
This week the Cat fans are upset that the team took a chance with the offense. They would have liked to see the game end with the defense on the field for a play or two.
Fans have to consider that this is a young staff who are facing tough decisions right off the bat. Mike Stoops is in only his fourth game as a head coach and is still going by the book. Maybe his gut told him to take a knee, but he was playing the odds. If the Cats gain positive yardage on two plays they win and don't have to punt.
It will be interesting to see how the coaches react. Will they always play it safe? Will this change the way they approach games?
In the end this is just a small bump in the road as the Wildcats build for the future. In the short term this game hurts and hurts a lot. In the big picture it is a learning experience.