Two FCS coaches did a great job last Saturday… but committed the worst football sin

One topic which is discussed on every college football Saturday, in one form or another, is: “How aggressive should Team X be in Situation Y?”

Should you go for two at the end of regulation or in the first overtime?

Should you go for it on fourth and two at midfield in a 10-10 tie midway through the third quarter? If it’s a 17-17 or 31-31 tie, does that change the equation? What if the distance is four yards instead of two?

These questions flow like a river as college football pundits — and you, watching at home — debate the merits of various decisions.

We can all agree to disagree on many of these decisions. There are legitimate reasons for taking one path instead of another. Some of us were brought up in one line of football thinking, others another. Some of us might have fathers who coached defense and preached about being fundamentally sound in the kicking game. Other people might have had innovators as football mentors, role models who don’t believe in punting and process various decisions in very different ways.

It’s okay — we can all acknowledge that there’s more than one way to win a football game. On some days, the conservative approach might be right, and on others, a more liberated and go-for-broke style might be warranted.

However, the one thing everyone should be able to agree on is this: If you’re a huge underdog, don’t leave anything untried. If you’re at a huge disadvantage but have a chance to pull off an all-time college football upset, the one thing you don’t want to tell yourself after the game is, “We didn’t do absolutely everything in our power to try to win the game.”

The most important word in that statement above is TRY. At least make the attempt. At least be able to tell yourself that you made the opponent work as hard as humanly possible to beat you.

On Saturday, the coaches of two FCS teams did a fantastic job of getting their teams physically, mentally and tactically ready to play. John Grass of Jacksonville State put his team in position to upset Auburn on the road. At the very end of a long Saturday, about 11 hours later, Tim Walsh of Cal Poly had his team properly prepared to handle Arizona State’s offensive formations and concepts, especially in red-zone situations.

Deep into the fourth quarters of those two games, Jacksonville State and Cal Poly were either tied or ahead. They put major-league scares into Auburn and Arizona State, respectively the 2013 SEC and Pac-12 South champions.

Grass, of Jacksonville State, was rightly proud of his team’s performance against Auburn. Walsh was just as proud of his players for the way in which they competed. What Walsh said after Saturday’s close loss to Arizona State is exactly what you’d want a coach to say in such a situation:

“Anytime you lose you are going to have some moments but I couldn’t be any prouder how hard we played,” Walsh said. “I really thought we were going to win the game. I believed it and our players believed it.”

So, let it be said up front: Kudos and commendations to Grass and Walsh for getting a lot of things right in terms of preparation, motivation, adjustments, and organization. You don’t threaten Auburn or Arizona State as an FCS school if you’re inattentive to a lot of important details. Ample credit is due to these two coaches and their staffs, for a lot of good work in the trenches.

Yet, for all the good things these coaches did, Grass and Walsh are going to be remembered by a lot of fans (and rightly, I might add — this is not an unfair truth I’m about to point out) as cowards. They had chances to test their FBS power-conference opponents, and simply refused to try.


Remember the AFC Divisional Playoff Game three seasons ago, when Denver Bronco head coach John Fox sat on the ball after the Baltimore Ravens tied the game with a late touchdown? Denver had a perfectly legitimate shot at winning the game with a field goal, but Fox just wanted to get on to overtime.

Grass took a page out of the Fox playbook by doing the same basic thing at the end of regulation on Saturday, following Auburn’s tying touchdown. It’s not as though Jacksonville State had just five or eight or 10 seconds. It had at least half a minute… and still made no real attempt to score.

For Cal Poly, Walsh and his team faced a fourth and six at the Arizona State 44 with nearly four minutes left in a 28-21 game. There weren’t 14 minutes or 10 minutes or even seven minutes, but only around four. Arizona State had just scored on its previous drive, so naturally, the Mustangs needed to answer. Moreover, this wasn’t fourth and 18 or fourth and 11, but merely fourth and six. It was hardly the kind of impossible situation in which a punt makes more sense. Fourth and 18? I’d personally still go for it, but I wouldn’t eviscerate a coach if he felt the need to ask his team to play defense under those circumstances.

Fourth and six, though? This was a no-brainer — you go for it.

Walsh punted. Arizona State scored a touchdown on its next possession. Game over.

Two coaches could be forgiven for making the wrong move, but they can’t be forgiven (in a football-only sense, of course) for committing the one true sin of an underdog coach: failing to do 100 percent of what was possible in the attempt to win.

John Grass and Tim Walsh are quality coaches. They did so much good work on Saturday. Yet, when you chicken out as an FCS team on the doorstep of something special against an FBS team, you deserve to get criticized — and to be negatively remembered by fans — if you don’t do every last thing you can to try to win.

Two decisions tried a lot of people’s patience levels on Saturday. Everyone expects the little guy to lose to Goliath, but everyone also expects the little guy to use every final slingshot as well. Jacksonville State and Cal Poly did not, leaving a bitter taste in our mouths after games which deserved better endings.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |