(1) Woody Widenhofer Calls a Fake Punt, October 16, 1999 vs. Georgia
Vandy stalled on the next possession and then failed on a fake punt on fourth-and-16 from its 21 when Jonathan Shaub was tackled for a 5-yard loss. The Bulldogs needed only three plays before Robert Arnaud scored on a 1-yard run to tie the game with 12:02 left.
Coach Woody Widenhofer took the blame for calling the fake. A similar play had worked last month against Duke, and he said that the play had worked most times in practice.
“That time they changed the rush and had two players on the outside. If I had it again, I still would have called it,” Widenhofer said.
In some ways, Woody Widenhofer was kind of a proto-James Franklin. Recognizing that Vanderbilt faced a talent deficit in most of the games on its schedule, Widenhofer was more than willing to gamble. The difference between Widenhofer and Franklin is that Widenhofer’s gambles were (a) less successful, but also (b) often in places where gambling made no sense.
1999 might have been one of Vanderbilt’s best shots at making a bowl game between 1982 and 2008. For one thing, the NCAA had recently changed the rules to allow teams to count a win over a 1-AA (now FCS) team toward the six required for bowl eligibility, and Vanderbilt scheduled The Citadel. The Commodores also scheduled Northern Illinois (at the time, a mediocre MAC team) and Duke (Duke). Those were three of the six wins required. The formula that seemed to be developing to get to six wins in the 1990s was: win all your nonconference games, beat Kentucky, and steal a couple of SEC wins elsewhere. Easier said than done, of course, particularly in an era when beating teams like Northern Illinois wasn’t a given.
And then, after squeaking by Northern Illinois in the second game of the season, Vanderbilt went into Oxford and upset Ole Miss. South Carolina was coming off a 1-10 season and was on its way to an 0-11 season. Suddenly, bowling looked like a real possibility.
Vanderbilt sandwiched wins over Duke and The Citadel around a 42-14 home loss to Mississippi State, and then Georgia — ranked 14th in the country — came to town. Vanderbilt went up 17-0 early and still led 17-3 in the third quarter when Greg Zolman threw an interception deep in Georgia territory, with Vanderbilt having a chance to go up 24-3. Georgia scored early in the fourth quarter to cut the Vanderbilt lead to 17-10, and then the Commodores’ ensuing drive stalled.
And then the fake. Georgia snuffed it out and scored three plays later to tie the game. Another Zolman interception, again in Georgia territory, set the Bulldogs up for the go-ahead score, and they would win 27-17.
Now, you can’t just assume that Vanderbilt would have won this game without the failed fake punt call — but of course, it didn’t help. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt — 4-2 entering this game — would finish the season 5-6, only beating South Carolina (by an 11-10 score) and missing a bowl game for the 17th year in a row.
The entire aura of Woodyball was distilled into this single fake punt call: an extremely risky gamble at a time when honestly a gamble was unnecessary (Vanderbilt, after all, was still winning at that point), that backfired spectacularly — and that Woody would have absolutely called again in hindsight.
(4) Matthew Fisher-Davis Forgets the Score vs. Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament
In the introduction to this, I mentioned that most of the entries in the Baffling Decisions bracket would be coaching decisions, and player decisions would be subject to greater scrutiny because split-second decisions made in the fog of war (or at least a basketball game) would only be considered in egregious cases.
You probably had a pretty good guess what moment I was talking about there.
In hindsight, it took a spectacular effort just to get to this point. As late as February 11, 2017, Vanderbilt’s basketball team was 12-13, 5-7 in the SEC, and sucking wind on a 20-point loss to a Missouri team that would finish with an 8-24 record. (Bryce Drew: the signs this might not work were there in his first season.) But Vanderbilt closed out the regular season by winning five of six, and then made it to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament as a 9-seed, facing a Northwestern team that was making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
And that game, you’ll remember, required a hell of an effort just to make it close. Vanderbilt briefly led 5-4 early in the first half, then didn’t lead again until the last two minutes of the game. The Commodores fell behind 49-34 with 13:42 left in the second half and it looked like it was going to be the Wildcats’ day — but then Vanderbilt went on a 12-0 run, keyed by a pair of three-pointers from Matthew Fisher-Davis, who finished the game with 22 points. A Riley LaChance three put Vanderbilt ahead 62-61 with 1:36 to go. The teams traded baskets for the next minute, with LaChance putting Vanderbilt up 66-65 with a layup with 18 seconds left.
And then it happened.
Had Vanderbilt been trailing at the time, this is a smart play. Put Northwestern at the foul line, make them hit their free throws, and get the ball back. Only... Vanderbilt was up by a point at the time.
With 15 seconds left.
With an NCAA Tournament game on the line.
Compounding the issue was the fact that the player Fisher-Davis chose to foul was Bryant McIntosh, who shot 87 percent at the foul line that season (and 85 percent for his entire career.) That’s as close to automatic as you can get in college basketball, and McIntosh predictably made both. Riley LaChance’s last-ditch effort missed with five seconds left, and just like that, the season was over.
Now, of course, Northwestern might have won the game anyway — after all, they had the ball down one with 18 seconds left and would have held for the final shot if not for the foul. But that would have been a 50-50 proposition at best. Instead, Northwestern had its best shooter at the line for two shots. It was the ultimate brain fart.
Which moment advances?
This poll is closed
Woody’s fake punt
MFD’s brain fart