When it comes to late-game clock management, Oregon State coach Mike Riley isn’t much different from Chris Petersen and most others in college football.
He consults the almighty.
“You’ve probably heard of the chart,” Riley starts, and oh, how we’ve heard of the chart.
It’s become a topic of consternation and debate this week around the University of Washington, after a late fumble cost the Huskies in a 27-26 loss at Arizona last week.
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Should Petersen, the Huskies’ coach, have instructed quarterback Cyler Miles to take a knee instead of handing the ball to running back Deontae Cooper with 1:33 to play? No, Petersen said, because the chart said otherwise.
Ah, the chart. Petersen is facing perhaps the most harsh criticism of his nine-year coaching career this week for adhering so strictly to it, but the truth is that the chart is a guiding principle for most every college football coach.
Do we take a knee? Run another play? Run one play, then take a knee? And after scoring a touchdown, do we kick the extra point, or go for two? Well, what does the chart say?
The exact structure might vary from program to program, but these charts are all designed to calculate the same factors and, as it pertains to late-game scenarios, they are to ultimately dictate whether a team should run another play or simply have the quarterback take a knee.
How much time is on the game clock? Is the clock running? If so, how much time will be left by the end of the play clock? What down is it? How many timeouts does the opponent have?
The formula itself — combining the down, clock and timeout situations — is calculated in the offseason in an attempt to ensure these decisions are made quickly and with conviction. Then, it’s put in graph form and included with the rest of the game plan on game day.
One person on staff, usually someone seated upstairs, is responsible for maintaining and properly interpreting the chart when the time comes.
“It’s hard to do the math in a moment’s notice,” Riley said. “So we use the chart.”
Sometimes, it’s simple. If it’s first down and the opponent is out of timeouts, three kneel-downs will kill the clock and end the game if two minutes or fewer remain — assuming the offense burns the entire 40-second play clock prior to each snap.
Though it’s worth noting that earlier this season, the Huskies faced those very circumstances against Eastern Washington and chose to run the ball anyway. UW, leading 59-52, snapped a first-down play with 1:48 remaining, and with EWU out of timeouts — obvious kneel-down territory. Still, the Huskies chose to hand the ball off on first and second down instead of taking a knee. But there was no fumble, so, no outrage.
Other times, the math isn’t as clear. And because these charts tend to lean conservative, they will likely advise a team to run a play even if only two or three seconds might remain at the end of the series.
“There’s going to be those edge numbers that you’re dealing with all the time,” Riley said. “It might call for you to run a play, and rely on your people to do the right thing and take care of the football, and use that many more seconds when you do that to help get you down to the point you can take a knee.”
But it doesn’t have to be that black-and-white. Creativity is sometimes required. Last Thursday, USC hosted California. The Trojans led by eight points in the final minutes, and, similar to the situation UW faced at Arizona, USC had a first down with a little more than a minute-and-a-half remaining, and California had one timeout.
Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian, who spent the last five seasons coaching the Huskies, chose to run the ball on first down, after which Cal used its final timeout with 1:36 remaining.
On second down, the Trojans ran the ball again, a loss of two yards by Javorius Allen. USC let the play clock expire and called a timeout with 45 seconds left to plan their third-down play.
Had USC simply taken a knee on third down, the Trojans would have needed to run a play on fourth down with about three seconds remaining. That’s not ideal.
So, Sarkisian instructed quarterback Cody Kessler to take the snap and run backward until the game clock ticked below 40 seconds. Kessler wound up sliding down for a loss of 19 yards, but because his run took the game clock below 40 seconds, the Trojans didn’t have to run a play on fourth down. They simply let the game clock expire, and left with a victory.
Some wonder if Petersen and the Huskies could have employed a similar tactic on first, second or third down against Arizona, instead of running a play they knew would involve contact and desperate defenders trying to pry the ball out.
“We have a few different plays we can run to milk the time off the clock, that being one of them,” said Sarkisian, who also uses a chart.
“We practice those different scenarios that could come up. They’re always unique and they’re always a little bit difficult, because you’re making split-second decisions, quite honestly, and you’re trying to calculate as the clock is running and doing the math, and how you can run off the time.”
Sometimes that means going off the chart.