MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — There is in sports only one reality, and that is the final score.
You can take all the woulda, coulda, shouldas you want, and they don’t matter. The only reality twinkles off into the midnight darkness on the scoreboard.
What if Kirk Gibson had struck out when Tommy Lasorda sent him to limp up to home plate on one good leg in the 1988 World Series instead of hitting a home run? What if John McNamara had taken out Bill Buckner for defense, as he had all season, instead of letting him stay on the field to let Mookie Wilson’s routine ground ball roll through his legs, costing the Boston Red Sox a World Series?
What if WVU’s Phil Brady had come up a yard short instead of making the first down on Rich Rodriguez’s fake punt call that clinched the 2006 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia?
Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
The right call is the one that works, the wrong call is the one that doesn’t.
What if Neal Brown had decided with 6:30 left in Thursday night’s Backyard Brawl to go for it on fourth and a foot while leading 31-24 against Pitt instead of choosing to punt?
Would WVU have won the game?
We don’t know.
This is meant to be neither a defense of Brown’s decision nor a crucifixion, although it comes in the midst of an online firestorm of criticism over his conservative approach to what turned into being the wrong call.
The outrage, of course, is not built upon simple dissatisfaction with the moment but on a three-year history of pushing the wrong button far too often as he tried to avoid pushing the panic button.
See, we love our daredevils. Evel Knievel was a national hero for his willingness to risk it all over and over again on a motorcycle, but that was somehow different for it didn’t have anything to do with a state’s pride and reputation being risked at the moment.
Only his own life and limb.
Was it the right call or the wrong call to punt?
I felt I had to sleep on that one before commenting, a luxury Brown did not have. At the moment, did he know that his most reliable receiver, Bryce Ford-Wheaton, who was in the midst of one of the most memorable games in West Virginia history, would let the easiest catch of the night easy slip through his fingers ... and with it the game?
Did he know the fingers of destiny would guide the ball right into the hands of a defender 10 yards behind him, allowing him to run 56 yards into the end zone? Did he know that with his best pass defender at cornerback, Charles Woods, already out of the game with injury, he would be joined on the sideline moments later when Wesley McCormick was ejected for targeting?
If he had known, it might have been different. Brown might have decided to give the ball to the seemingly unstoppable C.J. Donaldson to go for the first down rather than turning the game over to the defense.
But do you really want to put the football into the hands of a true freshman in his first collegiate game one what would turn out to be the most important play maybe of your own career?
Brown is analytic and cautious in his approach. His life is lived on faith, family and football — probably in that order — and the decision he made was totally within that framework.
He thought it out completely ... and it turned out to be the wrong decision.
Why did he punt? He laid it bare in his postgame analysis.
“There was a little over six minutes to go in the game. It was fourth and about a foot. We’re up seven ...” Brown began.
That was the situation. If he punts Pitt deep, it has to score twice in those six minutes plus to beat him ... or to make a crucial two-point conversion. It was far less risky in his mind than going for it.
“You can pin them, and we did. There was 6:01 to go — I looked up at the clock — and they had 98 yards to go and we’re up seven. If you go for it there and you don’t get it, then they have a short field and three timeouts,” he said.
Was it the right decision or the wrong decision?
He answered that right then and there.
“Best answer I can give you is if I had to do it again, I would do the same decision,” he said.
Giving the ball to Donaldson made as much sense as punting, but coaches have nightmares about all that can go wrong. Messed-up snap? Happened twice in the game’s first few plays. A penalty for a false start? Tackle Wyatt Milum had three penalties in the first quarter.
Fumble? Big defensive play from a veteran defensive team that’s strength coming into the game was stopping the run?
“If you look at what they’ve done traditionally, they’ve been really, really good at short-yardage situations,” Brown continued. “When you go back and look at it, it was probably three-quarters of a yard probably.
“So, if you take the whole scope of the game, you look at the drive before that, we got two sacks and put them in third and forever. And we played really well defensively on back-to-back drives. So I felt good about it.
“It’s easy to second-guess now because they went 98 yards. I think the situation was sound and, if I had to do it again, I’d do it again.”
It all makes sense in real time, except for one thing.
Kirk Gibson hit a home run. The ball went through Buckner’s legs.
And the scoreboard said “Pitt 38, WVU 31.”
That became the reality.