In terms of Xs and Os, the future of college football lies in what SB Nation’s Ian Boyd refers to as “the pop pass,” the focus of a terrific piece on Auburn’s tying touchdown against Alabama last year.
Xs and Os represent one part of the fuller chess match found in the sport of football. Style of play represents another part, pace of play another, fourth-down decision making yet another. Many of these tensions have existed for quite some time (especially fourth downs), while pace of play is emergent in ways that rarely if ever existed in the 1960s and ’70s.
All these components of strategy and tactics merit extensive examination in the sport, and plenty of words have been devoted to those very pursuits at at hundreds and hundreds of websites.
There’s one other central component of the battle of wits that takes place between two coaching staffs, however: endgame management, a topic that gains a little more traction in the NFL due to the clear line of demarcation provided by the two-minute warning. In the NFL, it’s easy to focus on the final two minutes of a game and identify that pocket of time as “the endgame.” This exists in contrast to college ball, where the lack of the two-minute warning, combined with clock stoppages after in-bounds first downs, creates boundaries that aren’t as defined.
A few years ago, the NFL opened Americans’ eyes to the need for better endgame management in a particular situation. As the 2014 college football season begins, coaches around the country need to reconsider the way they handle this very same scenario, the centerpiece of this article:
Before reading anything below, look at the cover photo above: Tre Mason of Auburn was in the clear when he reached the goal line with 1:19 left in the BCS National Championship Game against Florida State. The game reset was as follows: Auburn trailed, 27-24, and Florida State had two timeouts left, as this play-by-play log shows.
Here’s the video of the play:
It’s true that before Mason got to the 10-yard line, he was still in traffic, so for this reason more than anything else, Mason’s dash into the end zone was situationally appropriate. The even bigger point to make is that coaches simply don’t teach (and haven’t taught) players to kneel down at the 1-yard line in order to rob opponents of both time and timeouts in the final 90 seconds of college games. Anything done by players — and approved of by coaches — until the present moment in the life of college football should not be viewed negatively.
However, should that same view persist in the future? It’s time for a shift in college football’s thought process, with coaches reconsidering the merits of their late-game moves.
Recall this next moment from Super Bowl XLVI (2012) between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. Ahmad Bradshaw of the Giants was allowed to score by New England coach Bill Belichick, the man who thinks through these kinds of situations more — and better — than anyone else in pro football. Bradshaw wasn’t mentally ready to see a defense give him points at a time when it was in New York’s best interests to not score, trailing by only two points (17-15) with under a minute left:
Had Bradshaw not scored on that second-down run, New England would have wound up using all its timeouts, and the Giants would have been able to kick an 18-yard field goal on fourth down with under 15 seconds left, probably fewer than 10 by the time the kick was completed. New York would have taken an 18-17 lead.
In response to such a scenario (had it unfolded), New England quarterback Tom Brady would have had two plays from his own 20 without a timeout. New England essentially would have had to complete a 40-yard pass out of bounds in seven to nine seconds and try a 57-yard field goal, or complete a 30-yard pass out of bounds in seven to nine seconds and try a Hail Mary from the 50. Those would have been the Patriots’ only options.
The Giants put their Super Bowl title at great risk by scoring when they did. Their pass rush did just enough to limit New England on Brady’s subsequent drive, but even then, the Patriots got a decent look at a Hail Mary. (Rob Gronkowski almost got to the ball in the end zone.) They probably wouldn’t have had that kind of a look if Bradshaw had knelt at the 1.
Last season, Peyton Manning — in a game against the Dallas Cowboys when nobody could play a lick of defense — told running back Knowshon Moreno to get a late-game first down at the 1 but not score a touchdown. Moreno was confused as hell, but he did what Peyton wanted. The Broncos kicked a chip-shot field goal after burning through Dallas’s remaining stash of timeouts. The principle we’re talking about here was upheld in full. Dallas’s not-very-good head coach, Jason Garrett, naturally refused to let the Broncos score when such a move was his team’s only way out of that situation. It is empirically known that endgame manipulation works and should no longer be seen as the province of pansies or sissies. You’re just doing what you need to do to win a ballgame, and as an offensive team, you simply have to be smart enough not to take the bait if the defense offers it to you.
The question must be asked: Why can’t this now be expected of college football teams as well?
We know why college coaches have been reluctant to even consider this specific chess move: #CollegeKickers. Plenty of shanked shorties and blocked kicks of under 40 yards have littered the roadside of college football history. It’s true that coaches shouldn’t trust kickers if they have a chance to do things differently, and it’s also true that some teams, such as 2013 San Diego State, essentially did not have a kicker for anything more than extra points. Everything that’s about to be said should not be applied to Rocky Long or any other coach who faces a similar situation this season.
For most coaches, though, it’s time to realize that if you place great faith and trust in your offense — as Auburn did in 2013 and surely does heading into 2014 — it is more than worth it to surrender at least one play if not two in order to burn an opponent’s final two timeouts in the last 90 seconds of a game. This need becomes even greater if you:
A) don’t trust your own defense;
B) are facing a Heisman-winning or similarly elite quarterback (such as Jameis Winston).
Think this through: There are no guarantees in sports, even more so at the collegiate level compared to the pros. Many skeptics of this line of thought will say, “Well, if you leave the matter to a third-down play, you’re reducing your odds. If you’re Auburn and you fail on third down and goal at the FSU 1, you then have to kick the 18-yard field goal and settle for a tie.”
A reasonable counterpoint, that. It should be considered in the thought process.
Here are two responses to that point: First, Auburn was down three, not four. Having the field goal as a safety net makes it worth burning the timeouts and clock, thereby limiting Florida State’s options if or when it ever got the ball back. Whether you score seven or three in Auburn’s situation, leaving Florida State with no timeouts and minimal clock time can be achieved. Overtime is your worst scenario, not an actual loss of the game.
Second, and this is the even better response, who says Auburn would have had to kick a field goal if a third-and-goal try from the 1 had failed? Failure on third down, if a running play, would have guaranteed that the fourth-down play at the 1 (had it happened) would have started with under 30 seconds remaining, following Florida State’s use of its available timeouts. For a team such as Auburn — given everything it likes to do on offense — the idea of having one yard to make on fourth down for the national title, even if failure meant certain defeat (as opposed to settling for overtime with a field goal), is something the Tigers should have, and very probably would have, relished. Isn’t this risk — and it is a risk — worth it? The exchange involved in the risk of not converting the fourth-and-goal play is to deny Jameis Winston a reasonable chance of winning the game. You’ll take that if you’re Gus Malzahn… right?
A brief digression: It is true that Auburn allowed a short pass on Florida State’s winning drive to turn into a 49-yard gain. It is true that Auburn’s defense didn’t play well on the Seminoles’ march to glory, and that that should be viewed as the main reason the Tigers fell short — that, and Florida State showing its quality when it mattered most. However, had Florida State lacked timeouts instead of owning two on that final drive (and with at least 15 fewer seconds if not more), Auburn could have been able to focus that much more on making sure tackles in bounds. Florida State receivers would have been more cognizant of the need to get out of bounds. The dynamics of the drive very well could have changed.
Back to the issue at hand: What this notion of “endgame manipulation” really gets down to is this: Especially if you are an offense-first team, but also if you live in fear of your opponent’s offense, you should now view it as necessary to do what it takes to minimize both time and timeouts for that opposing offense in the final 90 seconds of a game. If you can drain one of your opponent’s extra timeouts, you should give the matter some consideration. If you can drain two timeouts, you should give the issue a lot of consideration. If you can drain two timeouts and 40 seconds while the scoreboard (down by three points or fewer) gives you the ability to not lose with a field goal, you should view an intentional kneel-down at the 1 as a default move, not an adjustment or anything one would consider “radical.”
Up to now, no one should be (or have been) blamed for doing the conventional thing. However, after seeing the 2014 BCS National Championship Game (following Super Bowl XLVI), it’s no longer a valid excuse to claim ignorance or insist that a failure to manipulate an endgame sequence doesn’t carry considerable consequences.
The pop pass Ian Boyd writes about in the link at the beginning of this piece is one way college football must (and will) evolve. Manipulation of the line of scrimmage lies at the heart of that larger play-concept.
The end of the Florida State-Auburn game last January shows that something else in the sport needs to be manipulated in order for college football to evolve: the endgame clock.