' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 7

Saturday, October 12, 2019

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 7

November 10, 2012: Texas A&M - 29 Alabama - 24

Keith Richards once observed that rock ‘n’ Roll is music for the neck downwards, evoking something innately physical rather than intellectual, which is why it’s humorous that multi-National Championship winning Alabama coach Nick Saban is frequently cited as a Rolling Stones devotee, as he was in Alan Siegel’s piece for The Ringer earlier this summer. After all, Saban’s success is built on the back of his so-called Process, a kind of lifestyle psychology stew of focus and preparation, which is more Airport Marriott conference than Rock ‘n’ Roll. But if Saban describes even the libertine Stones through the banal vernacular of coach speak, proclaiming their “exceptional ability to deal with success and maintain a high standard of how they do things”, he occasionally flouts his intentional vagaries, astonishingly admitting of “Gimme Shelter”, his preferred post-victory tune, “if you’re digging for purpose, I can’t really give it.”


What’s remarkable about the single best college football play of the twenty-tens is what precipitates it – that is, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, on a third down and goal from the ten-yard line, against undefeated and top-ranked Alabama in 2012, standing in the shotgun and then looking to the sideline where, the coaches having examined the defense on his behalf, signal in a change of play. This is modern college football’s preeminent recurring image – eleven players turned toward the sideline, like video game characters waiting to receive their command. In this case, however, Manziel essentially unplugs himself from Coach Kevin Sumlin’s Matrix when no receivers get open and Manziel’s pocket of protection closes in on him. As it does, Manziel, stepping up, collides with his own lineman, the ball momentarily popping into the air, though Manziel snatches it and then instinctively rolls to his left where the defense has suddenly given way because they think they have him trapped. So does CBS play-by-play man Verne Lundquist. “Got him,” he says with an air of finality. And then, “No, they didn’t!” And Manziel side-arms a touchdown to Ryan Swope who has come wide open in the end zone from the sudden burst of awe-inspiring confusion. A year later, after the infamous Kick Six, in which Auburn returned Alabama’s missed try at a game-winning field goal 100 yards to win instead, cameras caught Saban mouthing “I told you that would happen” through his headset to the assistant coaches, suggesting the Process foresaw all outcomes, even the worst one. After Manziel’s play, on the other hand, when the camera found him, Saban merely had the look of annoyed incredulity. Sometimes if you’re digging for purpose, you can’t really give it.


Saban’s Process is essentially risk management, suggesting college football as akin to running an insurance company (Steve Spurrier weeps), an aversion with roots in Woody Hayes’s old crotchety line about three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad. If it portrays Big, Tough Football Men as Scaredy Cats, it also suggests how football, which can appear so chaotic in the scrum of 22 players, as mere exertion of coaching control, like how Mario Verduzco, quarterback coach of my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers, subjects his, ahem, student-athletes to 700 question tests meant to account for every possible on-field situation. I imagine Manziel being given this test and then showing up at Verduzco’s door to explain he’s not taking it, a la goalie Jim Craig of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team to Coach Herb Brooks. No rehearsal could account for Manziel, which is why even when Alabama ground its way back from a 20-0 deficit, the outcome of that 2012 tilt felt inevitable in Manziel’s improvisation, like watching the reverse of Deep Blue make Kasparov go batty, an antidote to Saban’s Process in spirit as much as (non) strategy. That’s not to say Manziel was drawing plays up in the dirt, of course, but that his coaches smartly crafted a system around his unique penchant for what the esteemed Charlie Pierce deemed “real-time audibles”, just sort of making it up as he went along. And in a sport increasingly more about factions of angry old men in khakis conducting war games, that’s a virtue to remember and encourage – to play college football from the neck downwards.

No comments: