Some aspects of football are the same at any level, but many others aren’t. North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren lost sight of this basic distinction, and that’s why he — not just kicker Kyle Bambard — is responsible for the Wolfpack’s crushing loss on Saturday against defending ACC champion Clemson.
The idea that Bambard alone deserves the blame for this defeat is an understandable reaction, but one which reveals a lack of understanding about the college game, especially when measured against the NFL.
Some truths exist at all levels of football in relationship to game management:
Second-half timeouts are more important than first-half timeouts.
Getting out of bounds is highly important in the last two minutes if one can’t realistically get a first down and the play is not a fourth-down snap.
Quarterbacks can’t take sacks if at all possible. (This is something N.C. State and Ryan Finley failed to avoid, but it’s not even the focus of this piece.)
Football involves some universal concepts which any coach can and should apply, either to his own approach or to the way he instructs his players.
However, the college (or more broadly defined, any level of scholastic football) and pro game are different in a number of ways.
One is this: Relatively short field goals cannot be accorded the same amount of confidence or trust.
This is not a way of bringing up “Hashtag #CollegeKickers,” but making a broader point about placekicking in college football over time.
It used to be the case — 30 years ago — that placekickers in college football had kicking tees (small, flat squares on which the holder could place the ball following a snap) and much wider goal posts, albeit with wider hash marks. When the kicking tee was removed, college kickers lost a valuable advantage NFL kickers lacked.
Beyond that relatively minor detail, though, consider the simple fact that the NFL involves (ostensibly) the best players at every position. Part of the fragility of college football flows from a simple numbers game: Kickers (starting kickers, at any rate) number 128 in the FBS, compared to 32 in the NFL. The pro game is inherently more selective, with 96 fewer starting placekicker positions available. Beyond that, various college programs won’t (and don’t) find it easy to get a quality kicker.
Florida State has strong placekickers today, courtesy of the Aguayo family, but FSU struggled for many years — forever altering the history of college football — because it couldn’t find good kickers against Miami. Many other programs have been similarly bedeviled. Boise State under Chris Petersen comes to mind. Clemson, N.C. State’s opponent on Saturday, used to get crushed in the kicking game before finally finding solutions in more recent years.
Yes, North Carolina (Nick Weiler) and USC (Matt Boermeester) have cannons for legs and should be trusted with field goals of any length under 50, but those are select examples. When surveying 128 teams, some conspicuously poor kickers — and schools — exist. San Diego State, for instance, made eight field goals in the ENTIRE 2013 season, while missing SIX extra-point kicks. A coach would be a fool to trust his kicker under that kind of circumstance. The laws of the NFL simply don’t apply in such cases.
This brings us back to Bambard and Doeren and the final minute of Saturday’s State-Clemson game.
Given that Bambard had already missed two field goals, and given that he had already missed a kick in the 30-to-39-yard range, it was important for Doeren — with a first down and two timeouts just outside the Clemson 10 in the final minute, with Clemson having only one timeout left — to achieve a few goals and make the situation as manageable as possible for Bambard.
First, Doeren needed to make a robust attempt at a touchdown to spare Bambard a kick. Doeren tried only one pass, not two.
Second, with more timeouts than Dabo Swinney, Doeren could have played a very simple chess game. He could have called a first timeout with 10 seconds left, sent Bambard on as a decoy, forced Swinney to call his last timeout in an icing attempt, and then sent his offense back onto the field to run one play (a pass for the end zone). Had the pass failed, Doeren could have sent Bambard back on, with Dabo unable to ice him. That would have served Bambard’s and NCSU’s interests.
Furthermore, realize that Doeren left one timeout in his pocket. Had N.C. State ever thrown a pass which had been caught in bounds, or had Clemson tried to ice Bambard with 10 seconds left (under the hypotheticals raised above), Doeren had another timeout in his pocket which would have ensured Bambard got to attempt a kick in an unhurried way, possibly closer than 33 yards if a moderate-range pass had been completed.
Doeren didn’t try very hard to score a touchdown. He didn’t protect Bambard from an icing attempt. He didn’t scramble to at least gain six more yards and reduce the kick to a 27-yarder instead of a 33-yarder. Given the flight of the kick, Finley’s six-yard sack taken moments earlier mattered in the final outcome. Doeren didn’t try to gain those six yards back.
In the NFL, it should never matter if a kicker has to try a 33-yarder instead of 27-yarder.
In the college game, that same standard — while irrelevant for the best kickers — certainly applies to poor or struggling kickers.
Dave Doeren didn’t much care about that kind of detail.
He paid a price.
What he did mattered… and not in a way which benefited his team or his kicker, who was placed in a situation markedly more complicated than it needed to be. If we’re going to hand out blame, not only Doeren shares it with Bambard; Finley does as well for taking that six-yard sack.
Gary Danielson has spent many decades telling us that college football is so frail and unpredictable because large numbers of teams (128) and roster spots mean greater variances of skill across every position on every team. This is why coaching is so crucial in college football. Good players need to be put in positions to thrive, and struggling players need as much protection as possible.
Kyle Bambard didn’t get that extra measure of protection from Dave Doeren (or Ryan Finley). Blaming everything on the kicker is reasonable in the NFL. It’s much less so in college football.