Dilemma facing teams with late leads: Kneel or keep playing?
Closing out a victory when you have the ball and a narrow lead with time running out can require some math proficiency and a little creativity.
Two Pac-12 games last week show just how challenging things can get.
Oregon held a 31-28 lead over Stanford before Ducks running back CJ Verdell fumbled with 51 seconds left, enabling the Cardinal to score a tying field goal and eventually win in overtime . Not long afterward, Washington sealed its 27-20 victory over Arizona State when Huskies quarterback Jake Browning ran around in the backfield just long enough on a third-down play to ensure a punt wouldn’t be necessary.
Ducks coach Mario Cristobal’s explanation for his play calling revealed the dilemma each coach faces in these scenarios. Oregon was facing second-and-2 from the Stanford 42-yard line, and Stanford had one timeout remaining.
″(You get a) first down, the game’s over,” Cristobal said. “You could kneel it, but you’re going to have to punt the ball if you don’t get a first down. They’re going to use another timeout.”
If Oregon had simply taken a knee on second down and third down last week before punting, Stanford likely would have gotten the ball in poor field position with little time remaining. Even so, former Montana State coach Rob Ash said Cristobal made the right call, even though Oregon got the wrong result.
Ash now works with Championship Analytics Inc., which provides teams custom stat profiles offering recommendations for in-game decision-making — such as when to go for it on fourth down or punt, when to kick an extra point or go for 2, and how best to run out the clock.
Ash said CAI’s analysis of Oregon’s situation indicated the Ducks did the right thing.
“We never like to say never, but there would be very few if any situations where we would advocate taking a knee and then punting,” Ash said.
CAI works with dozens of programs at the Bowl Subdivision and Championship Subdivision level. Increasingly, end-of-game strategies are dictated by analytics.
“We have the use of analytics that break down their timeouts vs. the clock that tell us when essentially we don’t have to run an offensive play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “And that makes it easy, so I get a guy upstairs who’s looking at that and he can say, ‘Coach, if you just run quarterback sneak here and take six seconds off the clock, you need to do that twice, they’re going to use their timeouts, game’s over, you can take a knee.’
“Then there are other situations where if they have three timeouts, you know, you’re going to have eight seconds left and you’re going to have to one-step punt it, get it off, but you’re going to only leave them six, eight seconds.”
Some coaches even have video aides to help them out, but most have some kind of cheat sheet.
“I have a call sheet that has all of those things put together — the types of plays we need to run obviously if we’re not in a situation where we can just kneel it out,” North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said. “Whether we need to delay a knee or run a play. And if we need to run a play, what type of play.”
If simply taking a knee won’t burn all the remaining time, Championship Analytics recommends that teams practice ways to milk time off the clock. That’s what happened in the Washington-Arizona State game, where Browning allowed several seconds to run off the clock before he went down for a 12-yard loss.
CAI calculates one lost fumble for every 110 running plays in FBS. Ash said it is important to weigh those odds against the possibility of anything that go could wrong with a punt and, of course, the risk of giving the other team possession. Ash said even defending a Hail Mary from about midfield is a riskier play than simply trying to gain another first down by running the ball.
“A lot of times it’s just a feel, too. How your defense is playing,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “You’ve got to also look at yourself too as far as the confidence you have in who’s handling the football.”
That’s the issue. No matter what the numbers might say, the human element can’t be overlooked.
Kelly understands that all too well.
Notre Dame successfully protected a 22-17 lead against Vanderbilt this season after getting the ball back with 1:07 remaining. After Vanderbilt used its two timeouts, Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush took as much time as possible while taking a 10-yard loss on third down before Tyler Newsome’s 63-yard punt left Vanderbilt at its own 10 with five seconds left.
Four years earlier, Notre Dame led Northwestern 40-37 and faced second-and-8 from the Northwestern 31 with the Wildcats out of timeout. Irish running back Cam McDaniel lost a fumble with 1:28 left, Northwestern tied the game and won in OT.
“That’s what you hate about it, and that’s the beauty of it, right, when it comes to the game itself,” Kelly said. “Sometimes you can do all that preparation, and the ball still comes out.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph Russo in New York and AP freelance writer John Fineran in South Bend, Indiana, contributed to this report.