It is tough being a college football coach. What separates the good coaches from the great coaches are the decisions they make in the heat of the moment. The great coaches do not panic and are thinking about the impact a call on one play could have on a play six or nine plays in the future. On Saturday, we saw a number of questionable coaching decisions. Here is a look at a few that left me scratching my head in week seven.
Poorly Timed Fake Punt: The Mississippi State Edition
Mississippi State was in full control against Auburn, storming out to a 21-0 lead. The Tigers had just missed a short field goal, so Mississippi State took over from its 20-yard line. Auburn’s defense finally arrived in the game and forced what should have been a three-and-out. Dan Mullen, for whatever reason, chose to pull a trick out of the bag and called for a fake punt. Logan Cooke received the snap and quickly started to look for an open receiver. He did not find one and the pass was intercepted by Johnathan Ford, giving Auburn the football at the Mississippi State 36-yard line.
Auburn managed to pick up only three points on the ensuing possession, and Mississippi State still went on to win the game. However, why would Mullen, up 21-0, take such a gamble when everything else was going his way? It is decisions like this that could end up costing Mississippi State a game later on and ruin everything the players and coaches have been working for. Mullen gets away with this one, but please, let’s not see that situation come up again. If you are in the lead 21-0, you don’t need a spark. You need a special teams filter.
Poorly Timed Fake Punt: The Penn State Edition
Midway through the third quarter of Saturday night’s game in Ann Arbor, Penn State was clinging to a 13-10 lead over Michigan. Neither team was playing well on offense, so perhaps this is why James Franklin looked to find a spark. Franklin may also have been feeling some pressure to get some more points on the board, knowing he likely needed only a few more yards to get into field goal range. On fourth and 11 from the Michigan 37-yard line, Penn State ran a sweep on a fake punt. Now, Penn State has no running game, so you can imagine how a fourth-and-11 sweep was probably doomed from the start. Grant Haley, a freshman, was stuffed for a loss of two yards. Michigan ball at its 37-yard line.
The decision to go for it on fourth down, despite the distance, was not a terrible one given the way the defense had been playing, but pinning Michigan’s offense deep in its end of the field may have been the move for Franklin and the Nittany Lions. Michigan went three-and-out, but the field position game changed drastically on the fake punt. Penn State was backed up to its six-yard line after a Michigan punt, and Christian Hackenberg made a poor decision and was intercepted at the Penn State 28. Michigan was held to a field goal, but that score tied the game.
Field position is important in tight games.
What Are They Thinking Timeout: The James Franklin Edition
Fast forward the Michigan-Penn State game to the fourth quarter. Michigan now leads, 16-13, and Penn State is backed up against its own end zone at the 3 after Hackenberg was sacked for a loss of 13 yards. Penn State’s punt team was nearly called for a delay of game, but Franklin was able to get a timeout called. This may just be me, but I had two problems with this from a time management position. First, if the plan was to call a timeout to save some clock, it should have been called immediately after Hackenberg was brought down for the tackle. Instead, however many seconds continued to tick off the clock as the punt team came on. Preserving clock did not appear to be the plan for Penn State, with just under two minutes remaining.
The second problem with this timeout was it didn’t need to be called. If preserving the clock was not going to be the plan on this play, it appeared more likely Penn State wanted to use the timeout on defense, which itself is not a terrible decision. Instead, this timeout was seemingly used to avoid a delay of game penalty. Remember that the football was at the three-yard line. A delay of game penalty would have resulted in half-the-distance to the goal, a total of 1.5 yards on the field in this situation. Save the timeout, then, and accept the 1.5-yard penalty, unless there was a fake punt on the field and Franklin saw something he didn’t like. At that place on the field, the odds Penn State was going to run a second fake punt were not good.
Penn State ended up taking a safety on the punt, setting up a free kick in which it appeared Penn State recovered the football. The Nittany Lions did, but the Big Ten refs then called a controversial offsides penalty. Michigan got the ball on the second kick, and the game was essentialy over, as Penn State had only one timeout to spare.
What Are They Thinking Timeout: The Charlie Strong Edition
In the fourth quarter of the Red River Shootout (yeah, I’m still calling it that), Oklahoma was leading Texas by a score of 31-20. With about five minutes to play, Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes found running room to score a 12-yard touchdown run to cut the OU lead down to 31-26. In this situation, Texas should have had a two-point conversion play ready to execute given the score, the time of the game, and the fact that the Longhrons had already been given time to prepare with a couple plays inside the red zone. Texas scrambled to get the two-point conversion play together on the field, leaving Texas head coach Charlie Strong to call a timeout.
In college the extra point or two-point conversions are set up on the three-yard line. A delay of game would have been backed up to the eight-yard line. I may be going against the grain here, but I would accept that penalty over wasting a timeout on an untimed play every time, the only exception being if the two-point conversion occurs in the final 15 to 25 seconds and a team trails by two points, attempting to send the game into overtime.
Picking up two points on this play was undeniably critical for Texas, as it would have made the deficit just three points, but the way the game was going in the fourth quarter pointed to the need to back up the two-point conversion with reinforcements on the following Oklahoma possession. At this stage of the game, Texas was starting to wear down Oklahoma’s defense. Texas was finding room on the field to work, and backing the ball up five yards may have been playing to the advantage of Texas. Spreading the Oklahoma defense out even just a little bit may have made for a better shot at picking up the two points. More importantly, it would have saved Texas one more timeout to use on defense, if the Longhorns needed it.
Guess what? They needed it.
Oklahoma was able to run some clock on its final offensive possession, and after the Sooners picked dup their first third-down conversion of the day (seriously), Texas was put in a real tough spot. The Longhorns did not get the football back until just 18 seconds remained. An extra timeout could have saved about 30 to 35 seconds. Would it have mattered? Maybe not, but the next time Texas (or any team) feels the urge to call timeout on a two-point conversion attempt when not trailing by two points in the final 30 seconds of regulation, the coach involved might want to think again.