A number of NU fans have gotten on Coach Fitzgerald for what they’ve called unaggressive play calling. I personally would like to see Fitz take a few more risks than he currently does. However, after this weekends game against Indiana, I think it is time to discuss the difference between playing smart aggressive and playing dumb aggressive. Between being aggressive in order to help your team win, and being aggressive just because it seems time to try something.
For the record, this discussion is relevant in any sport. I personally coach baseball and talk about this all the time. We tell our players we’re going to give them the green light to steal a base whenever they want because we want to put pressure on our opponent and “make them play different than they practice”, however, we aren’t going to continue to give a player the green light if he tries to steal third with two outs and a 2 ball 0 strike count on our cleanup hitter. If a player does that, he’s not being smart aggressive. He’s being aggressive for aggressiveness sake and not to help the team win.
I think what we saw this weekend from Indiana was a coaching staff that seemed like they wanted to be aggressive for aggressiveness sake. The result was a series of dumb aggressive fourth down calls which kept NU in the game. The most obvious of these was the 4th and goal in which not only did Indiana go for the TD, but they called some sort of trick pop-pass play with wildcat back Mitchell Evans in as quarterback. If Indiana had at least gone for 4th and goal with a normal power running formation the mistake might have been more excusable, but Coach Lynch and his staff tried to pull a rabbit out of their collective hat when just putting the hat on their heads would have been fine. An IU field goal at that point and NU has to score a TD to win on their final drive.
Coach Fitz, despite his conservative reputation, actually provided a great counter to Lynch in this game. Fitz and the NU staff made what I would call a smart aggressive call on the 3rd and 8 delay draw to Jeravin Matthews on NU’s final drive. Now, you might be asking what makes a simply run play aggressive. What makes the play an example of aggressiveness is NU hadn’t run that play all season. Therefore, it was risky to call in such a clutch situation, however, the play had a high reward factor as Fitz knew that if executed correctly it could break for a big gain. If not, NU would be in forth and long and Stefan Demos would have had a tougher task kicking the game winner. You see, the difference is there was a positive reward to Fitz’s aggressiveness compared with Lynch’s. Lynch could have had a NU in a situation where they needed 2 TD’s if he’d just played it safe and kicked the FG. Fitz on the other hand knew that taking a chance with a semi-trick play could help NU get into easy winning FG rang and run off some valuable time on the clock. Fitz’s risky play call was much smarter.
Now, the question becomes where else can Fitz be smart aggressive. I think the fans calling for multiple double passes with Brewer and Persa this week aren’t really thinking smart. Yes, PSU’s defense is good, but you also can’t trick them more than once or twice at the most. What Fitz needs to do this week is take a lesson from his two mentors Gary Barnett and Randy Walker. Barnett was the master of the smart aggressive call, but Walker wasn’t bad either. In contrast, Fitz is been mostly not aggressive during his head coaching career. In fact, Fitz really is known for two aggressive moves one smart (and successful) and one dumb (and not successful). It’s also amazing how being dumb aggressive also results in failure more than success. Fitz’s brilliant aggressive move was starting the second half of the Illinois game in 2006 with an outside kick. That allowed NU to go down the field and score and helped put the game away (I’d love to see that game again by the way if anybody has a copy). Fitz’s failed aggressive move was the infamous 4th and 3 against Duke in which he took points of the board to try and covert.
So what can Fitz do this week (and in the future) which is like Barnett and Walker. Well, Barnett always seemed to have one solid trick play ready each week. He had the double passes for Michigan and Iowa, he had Gator vs Michigan in ’96 and a slew of others over the years. He also waited until the key moment in the game to use these, but they were in the playbook for when the smart aggressive surprise was needed. Fitz might need one in the next few weeks.
Coach Walker was the master of the well timed fake punt or field goal. Walk ran some brilliant fake punts and made a name for himself with “fastball” and “changeup” in fake field goals. I have a feeling their might have been a “slider” as well since Eric Batis did throw a fake FG TD pass against U of I in 2003, it just happened to get called back. Fitz has, thus far, been reluctant to call fakes. Now, I’m not saying he should fake from his own 20, that’s dumb aggressive, but at the right moment from his own 40 a key fake could provide NU with a huge lift. That would be smart aggressive. Coach Walk always knew when to call the fake and I’d like to think Fitz learned some of that from him. Also, there is always that onside kick move. Both Barnett and Walker actually started games with onside kicks. That’s tough if it doesn’t work, but I still think it qualifies as smart aggressive if you’ve watched the tape and have a plan when you kick.
Will Fitz be more aggressive in the next few weeks? I don’t know, but I think some smart aggressive football will be necessary for NU to pull off the needed upsets.