4th down-and-derision: On Dan Lanning’s calls …

  College football coaches up in our little corner of the world have been guided over the years by their conclusions to a simple question: WWDJD?

  What Would Don James Do? The taciturn leader of the Washington Huskies for 18 years, producer of six Rose Bowl appearances and a co-national championship, usually could be counted on for the proper response, be it the tenor of a practice or a message to his team or the praise for an opponent.

  I can tell you what Don James wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t go for it on fourth-and-three three different times in the Oregon game, like Duck coach Dan Lanning did in Saturday’s classic 36-33 loss to the Huskies.

  There’s a reason Jeff Jaeger’s (1983-86) 80 career field goals for Washington has hung around the FBS top 10 for four decades. Conservatism wins, or at least it did for the Dawgfather.

  Lanning is the target of slings and arrows in Oregon, to say nothing of biting derision from Husky fans, for his uber-aggressiveness in the pulsating game the other day. Here, we’ll try to deconstruct whether Lanning is an industrial-strength moron, a visionary or something in between.

  First, it’s silly to explain, “We were playing to win the game.” Field goals are in there for a reason, and, news flash, they can also help you win the game.

  Lanning’s approach invited the fullest continuum of opinion. One former UW athlete tweeted that he’d been watching football a long time, and how could Lanning, in his final pivotal decision, let Michael Penix get the ball at midfield?

  A friend of mine was firm that the last decision was indefensible but that the previous two were less egregious. I’d go completely opposite, holding that the first two calls probably warranted field goals, but that the final one was reasonable.

  First, most of us, especially the creaking among us, are likely conditioned to watching football with time-honored strictures in mind – like, you punt on fourth down except in extreme circumstances.

  Second, the overwhelming majority of us are able only to render judgment based on down and distance and game situation. In reality, the calculation is far more nuanced, as in: Does the coach have a well-schemed fourth-down play in mind, per the two-point conversion? Can he sense how his quarterback will react to a possible blitz? Does the coach’s film study reveal that the strong safety will react predictably to a trips set with a particular motion? Does he do that 85 percent of the time, or 50 percent?

  I happened to catch Hugh Millen, the ex-UW quarterback and solid analyst on KJR radio, review today the three fourth-down plays. On the first, Millen said the trips-left formation limited Duck quarterback Bo Nix, and it would have taken a high-level throw, rolling right, to convert. On the second, Nix threw left for Troy Franklin, completely missing a receiver, Traeshon Holden, on a slant over the middle. Millen called it a “walk-in” would-be touchdown.

  On the third, Husky corner Mishael Powell made a savvy defensive move, switching from his initial responsibility in the left flat to outside leverage on a receiver Nix was trying to target as he rolled left, forcing an incompletion.

  The zero-for-three results would suggest to Lanning: Maybe you don’t know your team, or the opponent, well enough. (Isn’t hindsight great?) It doesn’t help Lanning’s cause with Oregon faithful that his boldness backfired on him a year ago as well.

  As for the wisdom, or lack thereof, in not punting deep to Oregon at the end, I’ll take up for Lanning. If you believe it’s suicidal to give Michael Penix the ball at midfield, is it unreasonable to think he might also be capable of an additional 27 yards – the distance you gain if your punt happens to hit the end zone? One more Oregon first down and the game’s over.

  In any case, get used to it. It isn’t only Lanning violating the gospel according to Don James.

  Just up the road from Lanning is Jonathan Smith of Oregon State, rightly acclaimed for bringing the Beavers out of the depths and into the spotlight. Especially in his early years at OSU, he made some confounding fourth-down decisions, one of which was quite similar to the fourth-quarter call by Lanning.

  Needing a win to get bowl-eligible late in November, OSU was ahead at Washington State by five points, with fourth-and-four at the WSU 43, a mere 1:16 left and the Cougars with no timeouts. Smith had to know WSU’s Air Raid offense, often reliant on checkdowns, couldn’t afford those, yet he went for it, OSU threw incomplete, and saw WSU negotiate 57 yards for a score with one second left.

  Sometimes coaches, for better or worse, are trying to get a message across to their team. Mike Leach was one of those; he cost WSU more than one victory with reckless down-and-distance decisions in his early years.

   I’m not sure what the message was in Jake Dickert’s head the other day, but a few minutes after the Oregon-Washington game ended, the WSU coach, whose name has been advanced for the Michigan State opening, had his team go for it against Arizona on fourth-and-one at its own 34 — midway through the first quarter.

  It got stuffed. Somewhere, Don James smiled approvingly.