How a 97-yard drive and two Ivy Leaguers helped save Giants season

LANDOVER, Md. — Brian Daboll knew his team was going for it on Wednesday. 

The New York Giants faced a 4th-and-9 from the Washington Commanders’ 35-yard line with 2:23 to go before the first half ended on ‘Sunday Night Football’ in the organization’s most important game in six seasons. 

By that point, the Giants already had possessed the ball for eight straight minutes. Thanks to rookie edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, New York held a 7-3 advantage. From that spot on the field, kicker Graham Gano has been borderline automatic this season – he had two 50-yard field goals Sunday – but Daboll opted to keep his offense on the field.

Quarterback Daniel Jones took the shotgun snap, dropped back and looked left. Receiver Richie James ran to the sticks and turned. Jones fired the ball between two defenders and James hauled it in for a first down. 

Three plays later, Saquon Barkley took a direct snap from three yards out for a touchdown to make it 14-3 ahead of halftime, a critical score in an eventual 20-12 win for the Giants that made their playoff pursuit much more manageable.  

Follow every game: Latest NFL Scores and Schedules

For a drive that started at their own three-yard line, the 18-play sequence that took eight minutes and 35 seconds off the clock may have saved the Giants season and prevented them from squandering their 6-1 start. 

And it all started with the weekly discussion Daboll has with offensive assistant/game manager Cade Knox and director of football data and innovation Ty Siam. 

32 THINGS WE LEARNED: Laterals gone wrong and madness in Week 15

“Two guys that I lean on a lot during the week in terms of clock management, fourth-down decisions, overtime decisions,” Daboll said of Knox and Siam. 

“Everybody contributed to the win. Those two guys were certainly a big part of it.” 

The lesson? 

‘Try to listen to the Ivy Leaguers,’ Daboll said. (Knox graduated from Harvard in 2020, while Siam has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Cornell.) 

The drive started with a two-yard run by Barkley for some breathing room followed by a play-action pass that had Jones rolling left. He floated the ball to tight end Noah Vannett for a 15-yard gain, and the Giants were in business. 

‘It was consistent execution,’ Jones said, ‘play after play.’ 

Jones found James for six yards on a 2nd-and-15 and then again on the next play to convert a 3rd-and-9, one of two third-down conversions (in 10 attempts) for the Giants on Sunday. 

Then it was receiver Isaiah Hodgins’ turn, as he caught two straight passes for seven-yard gains apiece to move the Giants into Washington territory.

‘That was a crazy drive, for sure,’ Hodgins told USA TODAY Sports. ‘One of the longest I’ve been a part of. One of the most tiring, too.

‘We just kept playing. We didn’t blink. We kept executing. Felt like that shows what this team is made of. Back is against the wall, we just took it play-by-play even when there was a minor setback and kept going. This team just stuck together through the hard times and kept fighting.’ 

A false start by rookie right tackle Evan Neal put New York in a 2nd-and-15 situation, with a six-yard gain from Jones to backup running back Matt Brieda setting up a 3rd-and-9 try that went incomplete. 

That’s when Daboll made the decision to go for it, which did not come as a surprise to his players.

‘He always says he has faith in us, shoot, and go for it and be aggressive,’ receiver Darius Slayton said. ‘So it didn’t surprise me that he was going to go for it. We just had to get open.’ 

James did, and Jones zipped in one of several tight-window throws he made on the drive. 

Out of the two-minute warning, Jones hit Hodgins again for a 19-yard gain that had the Giants knocking on the door at the 5-yard-line. Jones tried one sneak on first down that went for two yards. 

‘Once you get inside the other red zone, you’re like ‘Came this far. Got to see it through.’ It was a big drive,’ Slayton said.

Offensive coordinator Mike Kafka dipped into his play-calling bag for the drive’s exclamation point. Jones and Barkley lined up side-by-side in a typical shotgun formation. Before the snap, both shifted to their left and Barkley took the direct snap in for the score.

Daboll said each game dictates different situations, and that the discussions and time spent on game management preparation – which takes place on Wednesdays and Thursdays – allows him to feel comfortable with whatever he decides. 

During games, Daboll has a direct line to Knox and Siam to debate in real time.

‘We spend a lot of time on it. A lot of numbers and percentages,’ Daboll said. ‘And then there’s also real conversation about players and matchups and you kind of combine everything. I don’t think you take one thing and say, ‘This is what you do.’ You got to have a feel for the game, got to have a feel for your opponent, got to have a feel for your matchup, got to have a feel for the weather.’ 

For a team with a first-year head coach and revamped roster, two Ivy Leaguers – as Daboll called them – may be the difference between a feel-good season and playoff berth. 

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY