Early second quarter the other night in the desert, UCLA is beating Arizona 14-3.
Bruins face fourth-and-eight at their 25. To this point, the Wildcats haven’t offered much resistance.
What to call? Clearly, UCLA coach Jim Mora didn’t channel his old college coach and say, “What would Don James do here?”
Mora signaled the Bruins into a fake punt. Sean Covington then heaved a pass about 5 yards over receiver Myles Jack’s head, even as at least one UCLA lineman was flagged for being illegally downfield.
Given an opening, Arizona gulped up those 25 yards in four plays, scored and got back in the game.
No doubt Mora would defend himself by saying Jack was grossly open. Which reminds me of how Bill Doba, the former Washington State coach, once justified a game-opening onside kick against a Reggie Bush-Pete Carroll USC team: “It worked every time in practice.”
That onside kick dribbled miserably out of bounds after going 2 yards instead of the required 10. Twenty-year-olds geeked up in front of sellout houses don’t always perform the same way on Saturday night that they did on Wednesday afternoon.
Point is, they’re playing a new game these days, at least in the Pac-12. Brazen is in, conservative is out.
You’d think coaches would be guarding their multimillion-dollar contracts like a combination to the family safe. Instead, they’re so cavalier it might as well be a game of fraternity beer pong.
Two nights earlier, Oregon and Stanford were scoreless in the first quarter, feeling each other out, when the Ducks had a fourth-and-goal at the Cardinal 4-yard line.
You kick the field goal, get points in a potentially close game, right? No. The Ducks threw incomplete in the end zone. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said he thought he had the perfect play call. I guess he didn’t.
Saturday night at Husky Stadium, Washington led Colorado, 17-7, midway through the second quarter, with fourth-and-three at the CU 9. In that situation, Don James sends out the field-goal team, each time, every time.
Well, Steve Sarkisian must have known he was going to beat Colorado, 59-7, anyway, because the Huskies went for it, and threw incomplete.
As for Mora, maybe he was just taking a cue from Helfrich. On Oct. 26 in Eugene, the Ducks were down 7-0 and looking a little shaky, stopped on a second straight series to open the game at their 26. No problem: They ran a fake punt – on fourth-and-14 – and it worked famously, for 66 yards.
You know how it used to be prudent to defer until the second half if you won the coin toss, a hedge against a poor start? That’s so 2010. Now it seems like everybody takes the ball, in a hurry to run plays. California and Colorado do it, and between them, they haven’t won a league game in 2013.
“I think you’re seeing it a lot in college football in general,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Offenses are so explosive nowadays. More and more people go for it on fourth down, and they’re being more aggressive, whether it’s on offense or special teams.”
In other words, you’ve got a fistful of cash, and you’ve got two options: Put it in passbook savings, or do what a tipsy guy in a casino would do: Spend it.
More and more, Pac-12 coaches are doubling down.