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The Blowout Matrix

What separates a good blowout from an awful one? Presenting a guide to classifying the most hilariously lopsided results in sports.

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

I am a blowout aficionado. A sports sadist. When a game that I’m watching turns into a rout, I usually turn it off. But when it turns into a true sports abomination, I eagerly tune back in.

This may seem backward: One of the main reasons we watch sports is to find out who wins. As the uncertainty surrounding a given result wanes, so does the general level of interest. But the best part of being a fan is learning about the teams and players involved. We learn plenty from competitive games, but I find that we can learn just as much from watching teams play long after an outcome has been decided.

Not all blowouts are created equal, though. I’ve given plenty of thought through the years to identifying what separates a satisfying blowout from one that makes me feel like I’m witnessing something I shouldn’t. To that end, I’ve created the Blowout Matrix, an extremely official guide to classifying the most lopsided results in sports. This matrix is based on two components:

1. Is the winning team having fun playing in a game it’s winning by a lot? Some teams relish playing in a game that’s gotten out of hand. Other teams seem to wish they could fast-forward to the end of blowouts.

2. Does the winning team keep scoring? Sometimes, a team jumps out to a hilariously large lead and then plateaus. Other times, a team turns a hilariously large lead into a hilariously larger lead.

The top-right quadrant of the matrix represents the ideal blowout, where a dominant team continues dominating until the end and savors every second along the way. Blowouts in the top-left and the bottom-right quadrants can be either good or bad, while games in the bottom-left quadrant deserve to be shot directly into the sun. Teams that build big leads and stall because they feel bad are the worst kind of teams. These kinds of blowouts should be illegal.

Let’s break this down one quadrant at a time.

The Beautiful Blowout

Some people complain that “running up the score” displays a lack of sportsmanship. (If you’re one of these people, I suggest you stop reading now — there is no time limit or mercy rule here, and I intend to keep dunking on you.) I never saw it this way. I think the most sporting thing a team can do is to continue playing sports to the best of its ability until the rules indicate to stop. That’s what happens in the Beautiful Blowout. The exact score doesn’t matter. What matters is the winning team giving maximum effort for as long as it can, and having a fantastic time doing it.

The Archetype: Team USA 116, Angola 48 (July 26, 1992)

Did the Dream Team need to whoop Angola so badly in the 1992 Olympics? No. Did Charles Barkley need to taunt the small African nation whose entire basketball team earned a fraction of his NBA salary? Definitely not. Did Barkley need to elbow an Angolan player in the ribs and then imply that the player hadn’t eaten in a while? I mean, there were a lot of things that didn’t need to happen here.

But the Dream Team wasn’t born out of necessity. A much lesser group of players could have avenged the 1988 U.S. team’s six-point loss against the Soviet Union. The Dream Team was born out of curiosity: What would happen if the best players in the world — and many of the best players in the history of the sport — all played on the same team?

Team USA didn’t need to dunk Angola into oblivion, but it would have done a disservice to its mission to do anything else. Every one of its thunderous runout jams was an experiment in basketball greatness.

Most Recent Example: Connecticut 116, Albany 55 (March 18, 2017)

This game was over before the teams took the floor — just look at how Albany’s players reacted when they found out they had to face UConn in the first round of the NCAA tournament.The Huskies led the Great Danes (good dogs!) 58–32 at halftime and 83–44 at the end of the third quarter.

But UConn didn’t stop UConn-ing from there, turning its 39-point lead to a 61-point win. Head coach Geno Auriemma’s team took eight 3-pointers in the fourth quarter — and hit seven of them.

The Unwilling Destruction

These are blowouts determined less by the winning team’s skill than by the losing team’s complete lack of ability. The talent discrepancy is so large that the better team will keep scoring unless it completely stops trying. These matchups are depressing, but I find them compelling nonetheless. With emotion and importance removed from the situation, blowouts become studies in ass-whooping: If X team plays Y team for Z minutes, how much will X team win by?

The Archetype: Slovakia 82, Bulgaria 0 (September 9, 2008)

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are 65 women’s hockey players in Bulgaria. That’s not many! But a tiny player pool didn’t stop the small nation from trying to qualify for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

That attempt went poorly. In five games, Bulgaria was outscored by a combined total of 192–1. (I’ve heard the one goal was awesome!) The matchup against Slovakia was especially horrific. The Bulgarians could barely skate; the Slovakians were professionals. No matter how hard the Bulgarians tried, they couldn’t prevent a Slovakian player from ending up open in front of the net.

There is no joy in these 82 goals. The Slovakians are as thrilled to shovel the puck in the net as a farmhand shoveling manure. But a job is a job. Once a hockey player skates in front of the net, what else is there to do besides shoot?

Recent Example: Michigan 78, Rutgers 0 (October 8, 2016)

Rutgers is the college football equivalent of the Bulgarian women’s ice hockey team. Last season they lost to Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan by a combined score of 224–0. Rutgers has a cannon it’s supposed to set off at home games in the hypothetical event of a touchdown — the good news is the school was able to save money on gunpowder!

The Wolverines weren’t trying to run the score up in this one — OK, maybe they were when head coach Jim Harbaugh called for a two-point conversion up 27–0 — but their offense would have been hard-pressed to stay out of the end zone with Rutgers allowing this to happen:

Up 57–0, Michigan ran the ball with third-string walk-on fullback Bobby Henderson. It’s hard to imagine a play with a lower chance of success than this exact run by the third-string walk-on fullback. And yet, Henderson coasted to the end zone virtually untouched. The Rutgers defense was even worse on Michigan’s next touchdown. It wasn’t so much running up the score as just plain old running. Is it wrong to score if nobody tries to stop you?

Most Recent Example: Australia 166, Marshall Islands 3 (July 11, 2017)

Mismatches in Oceanic international athletic competitions are common. Australia and New Zealand, countries with millions of people and billions of dollars, are routinely pitted against tiny Pacific island nations, some of the smallest, least populous, and poorest nations on the planet. The largest victory in international soccer history was Australia’s 31–0 rout of American Samoa in 2001, and there have been many other results like it.

So it wasn’t particularly surprising when Australia beat Samoa 111–27 in the FIBA U17 women’s basketball championships. But Samoa wasn’t the worst team in the field. It beat the Marshall Islands 120–12. This is what happened when Australia played the Marshall Islands:

Holy crap. The Marshall Islands committed 58 turnovers, grabbed five rebounds, and took 25 shots. It made one. According to FIBA’s website, the top Marshallese performer was a player who recorded no statistics:

There’s no video of that game, which is probably for the best. As a bonus, though, here is footage of Australia’s 163–13 win over Tahiti from this tournament. The Tahitians don’t hit the rim for eight minutes and trail 84–1 before miraculously banking in a 3 just before the half.

The Chill Rout

Most sports blowouts fall into this category. A team races out to a huge lead and then relaxes. If you see a second baseman pitching, odds are good that you’re watching a Chill Rout. The winning teams don’t try to maximize their scores in these games, but they laugh about being ahead by a laughable margin.

The Archetype: Northwestern 50, Illinois 14 (November 24, 2012)

Sorry for being a homer. I’m picking two examples involving my favorite team. Chill Routs make for some of the happiest sports fan moments, and these memories spring to mind easily.

In 2012, Northwestern was leading Illinois 48–14 during their annual rivalry game. (They play for this trophy. Approximately 73 percent of college football rivalry trophies are just enormous Monopoly pieces.) Early in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats drove to the Illini 3-yard line. They then gave the ball to Bo Cisek, a 290-pound defensive lineman whose most notable accomplishment was taking a photograph while holding a lightsaber, confirming once and for all that every Northwestern student, fan, and football player is a nerd.

Cisek had never previously registered a collegiate carry. He lost 2 yards, then carried again and lost 1 yard, fumbling away the ball on his second attempt. Cisek turned a surefire touchdown for my favorite team into a hideous turnover, and yet this sequence of events made me indescribably happy. Which brings us to …

Recent Example: Northwestern 45, Purdue 17 (November 12, 2016)

Tom Hruby (Getty Images)
Tom Hruby (Getty Images)

Four years later, roughly the same scenario occurred. Leading Purdue 45–17, the Wildcats gained possession at the Boilermakers’ 7-yard line. There, they handed off to Tom Hruby, a 32-year-old linebacker who walked onto the team after a career with the Navy SEALs. He lost 1 yard on two carries before Northwestern ran a play to get the ball closer to the goal line. On fourth-and-1, Hruby got stuffed at the line of scrimmage and fumbled for a turnover on downs.

Northwestern giving handoffs to random, beloved players was simultaneously dumb and amazing, and those dumb, amazing decisions were made possible by the Wildcats having a massive lead. If I weren’t a Northwestern fan, though, I wouldn’t care. Chill Routs rule when they involve your favorite team, but they lack universal appeal.

The Coward’s Blowout

Sometimes, the winning team in a blowout makes it exceptionally clear that it doesn’t want to run up the score. It lets the shot clock expire or takes a turnover on downs — anything to preserve the appearance of sportsmanship.

I hate this. The victors in the Chill Rout have also stopped trying to score, but at least they’ve acknowledged that winning in a blowout is awesome. Here, the implication is that winning by a ton of points is something to be ashamed of and prevented.

Worst of all, it’s patronizing to the losers. It’s one team’s way of saying: “Gosh, what we did is absolutely horrible. And I know you can’t really stop us, but luckily, we’re not only excellent at sports — we’re also kind.” It is performative mercy.

The Archetype: James Madison 84, Rhode Island 7 (October 29, 2016)

James Madison went 14–1 last season en route to its first FCS championship. Rhode Island, on the other hand, lost to Harvard 51–21 in September even though Rhode Island gives its players scholarships and Harvard does not.

In this game, Rhode Island scored a kick-return touchdown, but couldn’t accomplish anything else. James Madison quarterback Bryan Schor went 21-for-22 passing for 309 yards with five touchdowns; Rhode Island quarterback Jordan Vazzano went 4-for-25 for 12 yards with five interceptions. The Dukes stopped going to the air up 70–7 with more than 13 minutes remaining, but they almost got to 100 points anyway — a feat no college football team has achieved since Division III Rockford College beat Trinity Bible College 105–0 in 2003, and a mark no Division I school has reached since Houston beat Tulsa (and Dr. Phil) 100–6 in 1968. Within a remarkably inept span of five plays, the Rams threw a pick-six, tossed another interception, allowed a quick JMU score, and then fumbled the subsequent kickoff.

But James Madison did not want to score 100 points. Up 84–7 with nearly 10 minutes to go, JMU handed the ball to backup running back Trai Sharp. He scampered 23 yards to the brink of the end zone and then downed himself. (JMU coach Mike Houston says Sharp chose to slide on his own.) The Dukes kneeled four straight times to intentionally give the ball back to the Rams.

Recent Example: James Madison 84, Rhode Island 7 (October 29, 2016)

I’m still not over this. I don’t think I’ve ever been madder about anything in my life. The only thing more humiliating for a team than allowing 12 touchdowns is allowing 11 touchdowns and having the opponent do the grand honor of not scoring a 12th.

Maybe it seems stupid that I’m upset about this: The Dukes set a conference record for points and margin of victory. Why try for anything more?

Because sports are about achieving everything you can possibly achieve. Well, that and I really want to see a college football team score 100 points.