NORMAN — Brent Venables saw the end of the Ohio State-Notre Dame game like the rest of us.
“I sat there and watched it live,” Oklahoma’s head coach said Tuesday, “my wife sitting there, and my father and mother-in-law…”
He saw something many of us did not Saturday night. Not as the decisive play happened, anyhow.
“I was like, ‘They don’t have enough guys,’” Venables said of Notre Dame’s goal line defensive alignment. “‘They got a problem on that right side.’”
Ohio State’s Chip Trayanum ran left, straight toward the Irish’s missing link on their right side, and poked into the end zone to win the game 17-14.
“You feel bad for them,” Venables continued of the Irish, “because that was an incredibly well-played game – tough, physical. That was a fabulous football game.”
The coaching fraternity being more reality than myth, Venables mostly felt bad for Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman. It’s why he didn’t say much when I asked him about Notre Dame’s gaffe.
Maybe he realizes Freeman is a second-year head coach like he is, that Freeman has a deep defensive background like he does, and because of that defensive background Freeman is taking the 10-man misalignment, and what happened as a result, particularly hard.
Here, though, is where practicality replaces sympathy.
“I promise you, every staff at every level, this will probably get brought up in their Monday morning staff meeting or it already has,” 31-year college and NFL coach Pat Jones told me Sunday evening. “It’ll get brought up as an example of ‘At all costs stay on top of things.’”
Here is where what happened in South Bend ripples down to Norman.
When I asked Venables if he used the end of Ohio State-Notre Dame as a teaching point for his staff, he said: “Just with myself. Just with myself…
“I mean, we all talked about it as coaches. And really, the players… You’d think… And again, I don’t want to talk about it. But like, ‘Note to self…’”
With that Venables started counting 11 imaginary players with his hand as he stood at the press conference podium.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Having the correct number of players on the field for any given play?
Then a game with potential College Football Playoff implications finishes with one defense a man short, the opposing offense winning because of that shortage, and some hell breaking loose.
It sounds so simple until you realize that isn’t always the case.
“Sometimes that’s where being upstairs helps,” Jones said of coaches on the field versus in the press box. “It gets crazy down there on the sideline. And you can kind of see the big picture of what’s going on. ‘Time out, Coach! Time out! Take a time out!’ Somebody call it from upstairs and get it done.”
So here’s an Oklahoma team with its second-year head coach entering Saturday’s game against Iowa State as a 20-point favorite. The Sooners win that one, they butt heads with Texas in a showdown with as many potential CFP implications as Ohio State-Notre Dame.
Venables must have 11 defenders on the field against Quinn Ewers, Xavier Worthy, Ja’Tavion Sanders and the Longhorns.
He must have defensive coordinator Ted Roof counting to that effect up in the Cotton Bowl press box, or safeties coach Brandon Hall counting in the press box if Roof isn’t, or defensive line coaches Todd Bates and Miguel Chavis counting on the sideline if the press box guys aren’t, or cornerbacks coach Jay Valai counting on the sideline if Bates and Chavis aren’t, or grad assistants or personnel staffers counting somewhere if the full-time guys aren’t.
It sounds so simple until some team loses an enormous game because someone lost count, and one man pays an enormous price because of it.
“There’s a whole bunch of systems in place to make sure that doesn’t happen, but ultimately it falls on me,” Freeman said at his press conference Monday, “and that’s the reality of it.”
Now it’s every head coach’s reality, including the one at OU who is 10 days from his own Ohio State game with a potentially special season on the line.
Everything must be in order when the Sooners play in the Cotton Bowl, 1 through 11 on defense included.
“You can get beat and everything,” Jones said. “But the 10 men stuff, or having 12 guys out there, the sheer mechanics of substitution and organization and all of that, you literally can’t let that happen.
“You can always try to outsmart yourself and there’s quite a bit of that that goes on with matchups and different things. But my goodness at all costs at least have 11 guys out there and get ‘em lined up right.”
“Your gut hurts, really, to be honest,” said Venables, his heart pouring out to Freeman and his head contemplating the cost of one personnel malfunction, “because that’s not the way you want to… That did affect, certainly, the (game-winning) play without question.”