Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What if... | by Jeff

If 'ifs' were skiffs, we'd all go boating . . .

Notre Dame is home to its fair share of uncertainties. And being that actual football happenings are currently few and far between, we here at BGS have decided to dive wholeheartedly into the land of theoretical football. The land of 'What if?'.

If you've followed Notre Dame for any period of time, there certainly have been times where a small change could have led to dramatic repercussions. Notre Dame has been bitten by 'ifs,' and certainly benefited from them as well. I'll never stop wishing Ambrose Wooden had been born with an extra two fingers to knock down the 4th and 9 pass, and I'm sure there are quite a few Miami fans who can't help but wonder what would have happened if Jimmy had just gone for the tie.

So let's try to answer, "What if?" We're going to present several key moments and decisions in Fighting Irish history, and postulate, prognosticate, and ruminate about other potential outcomes if a few tweaks had been made.

Obviously, this exercise will provide nothing definitive, and will ultimately end up with all of us arguing over something that has not only already happened, but has already NOT happened. We welcome all debaters to the table, and graciously welcome anything that removes us from further scheduling debates.

We're college football fans. Arguing is what we do.

The first scenario we're going to tackle is the most recent, and it's still terribly fresh in our minds: Southern Cal, 2005. Pete & I teamed up to take a look at what might have happened...if...

What if Notre Dame had beaten Southern Cal in 2005?
by Jeff

The situation:
Any Irish fan who was alive that fateful day recalls the matchup with #1 Southern Cal in Charlie's debut season. The green-jerseyed Irish played a fantastic game, but Southern Cal QB Matt Leinart made an impossible completion on 4th and 9, and the Trojans received a few breaks at the end of the game to snatch victory from the Irish.

What if...
...the officials had made a few different calls, and ND had ended up winning the game? Any one of these decisions on the part of the refs would have altered history and cemented the Irish win:
  • Allowing the expired clock to end the game, rather than put seven seconds back on the clock
  • Spotting the ball in the correct place after Leinart's first down fumble out of bounds
  • Throwing a flag on Reggie Bush for pushing Leinart into the end zone
So the Irish win, and the Trojans lose. At that point in the season, would the national championship picture have changed? Would the Irish have had a shot at the title game?

As much as I hate to say it, this one may not have mattered all that much. Certainly, knocking off the number one team in the nation and ending a 27-game win streak is a huge accomplishment, and would have nullified the "can't win the big game" knock critics constantly hurl at Weis (never mind that Weis had already won at #3 Michigan in his second game).

The AP rankings before and after the game were:

Prior to the game

After the game
Rank Team Points Rank Team Points
1 Southern Cal 1618 1 Southern Cal 1617
2 Texas 1565 2 Texas 1566
3 Virgina Tech 1493 3 Virgina Tech 1495
4 Florida State 1393 4 Georgia 1426
5 Georgia 1389 5 Alabama 1306
6 Alabama 1244 6 Miami 1278
7 Miami 1205 7 LSU 1201
8 Penn State 1096 8 UCLA 1085
9 Notre Dame 1058 9 Notre Dame 1020
10 LSU 1057 10 Texas Tech 1007

Despite the loss, the Irish lost only a few votes and remained at #9 in the polls. And despite winning a close one, the Trojans lost only a single first place vote. But before we tackle the impact on the Trojans and the Irish, it is fairly easy to predict what would have happened to the rest of the Top Ten...

Rank Team Wk 9 Wk 10 Wk 11 Wk 12 Wk 13 Wk 14 Wk 15
1 Southern Cal W W W W W
2 Texas W W W W
3 Virginia Tech W W L
4 Georgia W L
5 Alabama W W W L L

6 Miami

9 Notre Dame W

Every other team in the Top 10 save Texas lost at least one more game that season. It is unlikely that teams behind the Irish (Penn State, Ohio State, and Oregon) would have leaped over a 10-1 ND team. So, if the game were to have national championship significance, ND would have had to leap over Southern Cal either immediately, or later that season.

Asserting that ND would have been ranked higher than Southern Cal after the game is a tough argument to back up. While some voters may have placed the Irish a spot over the Trojans based on the head-to-head results, the fact that it was a close game and played at ND would certainly have figured into many decisions. Remember that Southern Cal was riding a 27-game win streak and was considered to be the dynasty in college football. With stars like Leinart, Bush, and White and an offense averaging nearly 50 points per game, I could see the Trojans dropping a couple of spots below Virginia Tech and possibly Florida State, but not below a Georgia team that struggled against South Carolina and Mississippi State.

The Irish, on the other hand, would have likely leapt over Penn State and Miami, but perhaps not over an Alabama team that had beaten Florida 31-3 the prior week. Even if the Irish and Southern Cal were fighting for a spot in the rankings, some voters would eschew head-to-head and weigh Southern Cal's close loss on the road to #9 ND against ND's home OT loss to #16 Michigan State. Granted, the Spartans had just started their annual collapse with a close home loss to Michigan, so they weren't yet viewed as a bad team. But, as the season progressed, losing six of their last seven could certainly have given voters reason to adjust their votes in favor of Southern Cal even when the teams were eating cheeseburgers. ND did not have another marquee opponent on the schedule to justify another leap in the polls, and ND's close win at 5-6 Stanford followed by Southern Cal's 66-19 drubbing of 9-2 UCLA would have given voters an excuse to put rank the Trojans higher.

And even if the Irish ended up ranked ahead of the Trojans in the polls, ND would still have to overcome the BCS computers for a shot at the National Championship. Reversing the outcome of the game would certainly have helped the Irish's computer ranking, but the computer rankings were not kind to the Irish in 2005. By the end of the season, the Irish had climbed to 5th in the Harris poll and 6th in USA Today, but tied for 10th in the computer rankings.

Finally even if the Irish could have ended up in the BCS championship, Texas would have been a tough matchup. The Texas offense was statistically on par with Southern Cal's (actually, slightly better), and their defense was statistically much stronger: 4th nationally in scoring and 6th in yardage allowed vs 27th and 40th for the Trojans. For reference, Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl opponent, Ohio State, was 7th defensively in points allowed and 4th in yards, albeit their offense was much worse. At the end of the day, a win over our west coast rivals would certainly mean a lot for the program, but it is unlikely that the win would change the BCS or National Championship picture. We still would have played Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

But what about the 'Bush Push'?
by Pete

Aside from the fact that I would no longer possess the hazy memory of stumbling home alone to my Turtle Creek apartment in a catatonic state, the impact of a referee finding the cojones to call the obscure "assisting the runner" penalty in arguably the greatest college football game ever on arguably one of college football's best players and arguably (unless you ask ESPN) the greatest college football team of all time would have been gigantic. Or completely insignificant.

"I used all 200 pounds of my body
to push Matt in." - Reggie Bush
For technical purposes, here is the definition of the penalty:
Referee's Signal Number 44 - Assisting the Runner

When used. This signal is used by the Referee usually to indicate that illegal assistance has been given to a runner by an on-field team-mate - eg a strong push or the ball-carrier grabbing a team mate's belt and being "towed". This is a comparitively rare foul.

Penalty. 5 yards from the spot of the foul.

How executed. Begin the motion with both your arms held at your side with the palms facing forward, and move them forwards in a gentle pushing motion. It is not necessary, and indeed undesirable, to push the hips forward at the same time. Finally point to the offending team by streching an arm out from the shoulder to the horizontal.
And while most football fans have known of its existence, I'm interested to see if anyone has ever seen it called at the Division 1 level.

To set the obvious aside, if Reggie Bush was called for assisting Matt Leinart into the end zone for the winning touchdown, the five yard penalty would have seriously dampened USC's chances of scoring to winning touchdown, but wouldn't have entirely eliminated the possibility. Remember, three seconds were left on the clock after the TD, and Notre Dame did receive a kickoff after the touchdown that didn't go anywhere, so USC, even if the Bush Push was properly called, would have had one chance to go six yards for the score. And with USC's offense, the potential to still score despite having a touchdown taken away would still have been quite potent.

For argument's sake (and because it feels kinda good), let's assume Bush was called for the penalty, Notre Dame stadium was rejuvenated by the second chance, and Ambrose Wooden completes the transition from Most Loathed to Most Loved Irish player in record time when he bats down a Leinart pass in the end zone for the win. Feels good, doesn't it?

Beyond the game and its seasonal implications, the Bush Push would have launched what was already a game for the ages into the stratosphere of "Games People Will Never, Ever Stop Talking About." You could bet your bottom dollar that every single time an offense was faced with a 4th and 1 on the goal line, the gregarious color commentator would bring up the Bush Push, along with a detailed breakdown of the "assisting the runner" penalty, with perhaps a quick highlight package or informative graphic to accompany it. The gutsy referee would become a household name among football fans, and he would promptly have to disappear into hiding for the rest of his life, out of fear of irate USC fans and being smothered by ecstatic ND ones. I'd even go so far to say that you'd see the penalty called significantly more (that is to say, more than never).

Furthermore, does Reggie Bush win the Heisman trophy if his most well-known "accomplishment" for the season was a bone-headed penalty that cost his team the game? I seem to remember that while Bush was the overall favorite to win the trophy, Vince Young was making a case for himself as well. Is the burden of breaking USC's win streak trim the Bush enough that Young takes the trophy? It may well have been a big enough chink in the armor.

Lastly, how would Notre Dame fans feel if the Bush Push was properly called and ND won the game? Sure, there would be the overwhelming euphoria for the Irish and unrelenting schadenfreude for Bush, but what about once the high wears off? Would the public view it as a victory Notre Dame stole away on a ticky-tack foul? Or would it be karmic retribution for completing a long bomb against perfect coverage on 4th down by USC? Or would it be karmic retribution for having the ball knocked loose on the goal line, only for it to bounce out of bounds and save the day?

Simply put, does a properly called Bush Push serve as the cap to a game that had already risen well above the mortal playing field, cementing its place as the single most exciting game of college football ever played? Or is it a big slab of mud thrown in the face of a game dictated by hard play, hard hits, and gritty determination, only to have it all taken away by an obscure penalty?

As far as I'm concerned, I'll leave the game as it is, one of legends, and one decided by the players and the whims of the universe. Sure, Matt Leinart probably couldn't complete that pass if he had another thousand chances, and sure, that ball could have bounced anywhere aside from where it did and Notre Dame would have won, but if a referee decided to pick the Bush Push as the moment to start enforcing a rule that is for all intents and purposes defunct, it throws the entire epic battle into a hazy uncertainty, leaving USC fans feeling cheated, and Notre Dame fans feeling sheepish, almost guilty about the win. The players made the plays that decided the game, and that's the way it should be.

Of course, I say that, but it's damn hard to turn away that win.

Stay tuned for some more "what ifs"...