Some teams have all the luck/Michael Bleach
Coming off a weekend in which all Michigan Tech athletic teams were on the road, there were only two possible topics of discussion that seemed relevant for this column.
One, the football team won by a 33-31 margin at Northwood, making it their first game this season decided by fewer than 20 points. Two, the hockey team got swept at the hands of Notre Dame, giving up 10 goals in the process and taking an astounding 29 penalties over the series with three major infractions and a trio of game misconducts in game 2.
Twenty-nine penalties. Earned by 14 different players.
My mind still has not wrapped its way around the implications of 107 total charged penalty minutes, so on to football it is.
For those who missed it, the Huskies came out on top of a topsy-turvy contest, winning after quarterback Tyler Scarlett drove 85 yards on nine plays in 51 seconds to escape with the win. The final play came down to diminutive wide receiver Jordan McConnell coming up with a tipped-pass jump-ball in the back of the end zone intended for wide receiver Brandon Cowie.
But what catches the eye most was this quote from head coach Tom Kearly after the game.
“I’d rather be lucky than good,” said Kearly. “And today we were lucky. It’s a good win, but I didn’t think we deserved it the way we played the fourth quarter.”
The concept of luck in sports is a fascinating one.
Other than Secret Service agents and wedding planners, no occupation attracts more compulsive personalities than a career in coaching. The lengths coaches will go to try and gain an advantage are eccentric to say the least, bordering on the absurd to be the most accurate.
Bob Knight famously had his players served spaghetti, burgers (no bun), scrambled eggs and pancakes for every pre-game meal, while Chip Kelly caused a stir eliminating Taco Tuesdays – the greatest day of them all – for the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason.
Tinkering with the facilities is a time-honored tradition as well among coaches. Because unless the motivational posters in the weight-room deliver juuuuust the right message, turnovers and careless penalties are bound to happen.
At Wisconsin, the visiting locker room at Camp Randall has alternated colors between bright pink and a genteel “prison blue,” featured to try and calm the blood-lust of the opponent.
All of which is to say, coaches as a whole don’t much like the idea that sometimes the control of the outcome is beyond them.
But it is. Much more than we sometimes want to admit.
In football particularly, there are two stats that show the high variance of luck.
First, are recovered fumbles. It is actually pretty simple. ALL fumble recoveries are luck. All of them.
It doesn’t matter if you do drills swarming to the football, practice fighting at the bottom of piles or have found the best motivational poster ever in the weight room. Over the history of the NFL, defenses recover fumbles at a 50 percent rate.
A high recovery rate one year dips to league-low levels the next with virtually the same personnel. Even the Chicago Bears and their gobs of turnovers are subject to this rule. Forcing fumbles is a skill, but recovering the oblong bouncing ball is subject to the will of the gods and Lombardi.
Husky fans can take heart – Tech has been especially unlucky in that regard this year. In total, Black and Gold players have put the ball on the ground 12 times and lost nine of them. That 25 percent recovery rate is second worst in the league and should improve as the season continues.
Further, games decided by seven points or less are historically a 50-50 proposition as well. This one is even harder to wrap the mind around, as our eyes and years of John Madden have convinced us that winning in the fourth quarter is a repeatable skill.
The statistics say otherwise.
Certainly Scarlett and the offense should get all the credit and adulation for the game-winning drive, but even in this micro example luck plays a huge role. Most obviously, it took a tipped-pass touchdown to win. But it also required six other catches without a drop, no hands lurking on the defensive line to bat down passes and no game-changing calls by the referees (just ask Pearson what that is like).
Kearly called the victory luck, but a quick look at the statistics suggest the Timberwolves were lucky to be in the game at all. The Huskies outgained their opponents by 232 yards and held on to the ball for 37:10 of the game. Only two lost fumbles (three turnovers total) kept the hosts from getting blown out.
Again, the concept of luck is fascinating.
Over the next three weeks, the Huskies face the meat of their schedule, getting home dates with Ferris State (4-2) and Saginaw Valley (6-0) before a trip to Hillsdale (4-1) that will determine the merits of this year’s team. One bounce here and a flag there and it is a memorable season. Those turns go the other way and it becomes a forgotten year of mediocrity.