Try flipping a coin fifty times. If you chart out the results, I would wager that it does not look as even as you might expect. Just because it's an equal chance of heads or tails doesn't mean you neatly get heads-heads followed by tails-tails. Instead you get seemingly bizarre - seemingly streaky - patterns of, say, fourteen heads followed by a few back and forth then sixteen tails. The probabilities aren't all that different.
So it is with most offenses. There's an imaginary equilibrium of how much we'd expect a particular offense to score against a particular defense. This is the average score if, say, Alabama played LSU a thousand times. But there's variance; each game is different. And once you look at it like that, you see how silly it can be to get too wrapped up into comparing a couple of drives back to back.
The answer with a team like Texas Tech is that they have a hell of an offense, and we can just expect them to score a lot. How they get those points, in what order, all in the first half, all in the second, is largely a function of variance, or in other words, luck.
I am reminded of all this because the game that seemed a shining example of this was Texas Tech's 31 point comeback in their bowl game against Minnesota a couple of years back. Tech was down 31 in the second half, and, after a barrage of passes from then-sophomore quarterback Graham Harrell, Tech won, and Glen Mason lost his job. As I stated:
As most of you know, Texas Tech came back from 31 down with 7 minutes to go in the third quarter to beat Minnesota. What was amazing to me, as I watched the game, was that despite the short time frame, the entire thing happened almost sleepily. The "comeback" appeared like some odd mixture of luck and manifest destiny. Minnesota did not really lose the game like most teams who give up huge comebacks do. Indeed, Minnesota should be a team designed to control second half leads: they have an impressive running game and a methodical passing game to complement it. Minnesota did not turn the ball over in the second half, and got a number of first downs. Tech did not get particularly good field position, either. The most frantic moment of the entire game was Tech's 90+ yard drive to kick a 52-year field goal, and even that still seemed surprisingly serene. . . .
There actually is an entire field of study dedicated to this idea regarding sports, investing, and other facets of life and it is called the "hot hand fallacy." (See also here, and here.) Surely we've all experienced and witnessed the "hot streak" or the "cold streak" in basketball where a shooter has a poor half and then literally can't miss in the second. We see the swing in momentum, the crowd cheering or silenced, the shooter's swagger, his confidence, his teammates feeding him the ball, and his confidence to shoot it from anywhere on the court with a hand in his face.
Except that is an illusion. At least according to researchers Gillovich, Vallone, and Tversky: If you're a 40% field goal shooter for the season, you're pretty much a 40% shooter all the time, even if in one game you shot 20-22 and another 1-15. It evens out over time. The difference is just chance.
This same logic applies to football, and to no offense in football more than Texas Tech's. Clearly, over the last several years Tech's offense has been one of the most productive in football. It's been well documented that Leach's offense often sputters for a quarter or two before exploding to score points at an almost ridiculous pace. So maybe the comeback wasn't such an aberration. 44 points is not so abnormal for them--what's the difference if they had scored those touchdowns on every other drive over the course of the entire game, rather than scoring them all in the second half?
I did note an exception to this, though. Not all football teams or quarterbacks act like coins; sometimes they can get rattled, and the probabilities can change on the basis of perceived adversity. The "human coin" would be someone like Michael Jordan. He's shot millions of free-throws, and he was not going to be rattled. If he missed five free-throws in a row, it wasn't because he was rattled, it was because that's how the coin flip turned out (though it was a stacked coin, with 90% heads and 10% tails).
But with young players, they might let it get to them. I noted this with Harrell in that game: he was but a sophomore then, but he had a full-season under his belt. Had he not, I do not think he would have had the confidence to keep the probabilities the same. Flash forward to now. Last second drives against Texas, falling behind early against Oklahoma State. Not an issue. Harrell's just out there coolly flipping his coins. I will end with what I said about the end of that comeback game, which has renewed relevance now.
The upshot of all this is simply that, particularly from an offensive standpoint, you practice to remove emotion and to remove the hot hand effect. You want to be Michael Jordan looking at the game winning free throw like it is just the 156th free throw after a routine practice. I think what made Leach come to tears after the game is that everyone on the team - coaches, player, fans - went about their business as usual. Tech didn't come back by launching hail marys, running trick plays, grabbing turnovers, or even really getting lucky breaks. Everyone bought into the system and the program, did their job, played smart football, and performed.
I think what brought Leach to tears was the realization that, for young kids in a hyperbolic football world, sometimes it's brave and valiant simply to do your job.
* As a final note, sorry for all being all Texas Tech all-the-time recently, but (a) I've been acutely familiar with Leach (once had a long conversation with him about applying the pythagorean theorem to calculate how long a QB's throw was) and that offense for over a decade, so it's nice for me to see their success, and (b) their past two prime-time games have really been the only football I've been able to see recently. In any event, there might be a bit of a delay before my next post, because I'm working on some more detailed substantive posts - or as Orson Swindle likes to call them, my "coach porn" articles - about Florida's offense along with a couple of passing concepts in vogue right now. So stay tuned for those.