Maybe for those uninterested in the game, football doesn't seem like a work of art. But in the crashing bodies and arching passes and precise blocking there's form and symmetry. Every player strives to find his own individual brilliance in the strict confines of the playbook. And, as with art, the plays in football strive to organize the chaos into something meaningful.
So if football does have some form, it's the job of the critic (sportswriter) to find a team's pattern and decide if it works. The most compelling and also most disturbing aspect of the Tigers' win last Saturday against the University of South Florida (USF) is that it doesn't fit any pattern one would expect after three games. No player has played consistently; no unit has routinely shown itself to be reliable. The Tigers are a postmodern unit where the only constant is that they are unpredictably unreliable.
The Tigers built a 10-point lead at Mississippi State University (MSU) before the kicking team dropped a couple balls and the bottom fell out in a painful 30-10 Tigers loss. Despite scoring 43 points on a defenseless University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC), the Tigers amassed over 100 yards in penalties. (Three penalties by the defense led directly to UTC's only touchdown.) The following game the Tigers offense popped in 17 first quarter points over the USF only to sputter aimlessly over the next three quarters, racking up no points and only 53 yards of offense.
The offense also turned the ball over four times, with one fumble leading to USF's only touchdown. Their ineptitude forced the defense to struggle mightily, keeping the Bulls out of the endzone with a last-second stand.
In each game, after building an early lead, some facet of the team has had a critical meltdown. It cost a win at MSU and could have cost the UTC and USF games if either of those opponents had been on par with the Bulldogs. Unfortunately for the Tigers, next Saturday's opponent is Louisville. Though the Cardinals (3-1) dropped a game last weekend to Illinois, 34-10, they have still outscored their opponents by 47 points for the season. If the Tigers (2-1) can choose a weekend to get their act together, their first conference game of 2001 would be a good place to start.
What's causing the chaos? Why has there been a breakdown every game? There are no easy answers, but head coach Tommy West offers this insight: "It looks, right now, like we lose our fundamentals." Losing the fundamentals in this case means a lack of team play. "There [has been] a point in every game," he says, "where we get to doing our own thing." His message to his players: "Just do your job."
In other words, the forms present within the Tigers football squad -- its offensive philosophies and defensive schemes -- come under the influence of another factor: group mentality.
Imagine for a moment if Picasso, Monet, Matisse, and Renoir had to create a painting together. Each would face the challenge of making the painting work while still allowing for his individual style to shine through. The probability of success in such an endeavor is small.
But good teams make this happen, and that's the Tigers' goal. The method, according to West, is simple. "It's really just [been] a case of not doing exactly what we are supposed to do," he says. He gives as an example quarterback Travis Anglin: "There is no doubt in my mind Travis caused that first fumble [in the USF game]. He just needs to make a quick throw. We hold it and hold it and [a receiver] is just not there. Just do like we do in practice and throw the ball away."
Keep in mind that Anglin is one of the Tigers' stars so far this season. Against USF he threw for 94 yards and a touchdown, rushed the ball for 73 yards, and even caught a gimmick-pass reception from receiver Ryan White for 45 yards. West's point is clear: If one part of the piece isn't working, the whole thing loses coherence.
Against USF, the whole thing very nearly collapsed minutes later as Anglin lost the ball again, which resulted in the Bulls' only touchdown and kept them in the game. "All of a sudden, we go into a mode of 'I have to make this play,'" West says. "Travis knows this. If you're backed up, take a knee or run a quarterback sneak. It's a play we run all the time. There are different zones on the field and [the red zone] is not a free-wheeling zone. That's where you get two hands on the ball, get what you can get, and don't be a hero. At worst, we'll punt."
"We have a lot of work before we go to Louisville," West says. "We're going to have to make a lot of corrections to have a chance to win." The biggest correction, it seems, is for the players on the squad to make a conscious decision to accept their roles and do what West tells them to do. West is not gun-shy about letting his players know when they are part of the problem. Saturday will show just which players are part of the Tigers' solution.
You can e-mail Chris Przybyszewski at firstname.lastname@example.org.