Timeout Decision Costs WVU Chance(s) At Win
West Virginia head football coach Dana Holgorsen is adamant about his approach to clock management in the waning moments of a half, or a game. Eschewing timeouts, he has been mostly successful in getting WVU points in those situations, thereby validating his tactics.
One of the first displays of this came in 2014 on the road against Texas Tech. With the clock winding down, he bypassed a chance or two at a timeout, and when Josh Lambert drilled the game-winner, leaving the Red Raiders no time to respond, there was nothing to argue with. That’s continued during his tenure at WVU, culminating with the Texas game a fortnight ago.
In that contest, West Virginia had two timeouts remaining when it took possession for the final drive, but did not use one until it was setting up for a two-point conversion with just 16 seconds left. The fact that the clock had bled down to some 23 seconds prior to WVU’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Gary Jennings was ignored, because, hey, WVU won the game. To criticize West Virginia for not using one or both of them on the final drive would have seemed petty, or nitpicking. In light of WVU’s final drive against Oklahoma State, however, it should have served as a harbinger of things to come.
Before we go on, there are a number of perfectly good reasons to not use timeouts in some situations at the end of the half or the game. First off, running the clock down so the opponent doesn’t have the chance to get the ball back, or to do anything meaningful with it, is quite valid. Second, as Holgorsen has often said, there are other ways of stopping the clock, such as getting out of bounds or getting a first down. Provided the offense is snappy in getting to the line of scrimmage, the most that might be lost is a second or two. That’s a valid trade-off in many situations.
It also makes sense to keep one timeout in case of a disaster, such as a sack or a botched play where confusion results, or to get the placekicking team on the field if only three points are needed. Having one available to make sure everyone is on the same page for a final play call is also a nice bonus.
Take all of the above into consideration, and Holgorsen’s approach is fine most of the time. However, no tactic is one-size-fits-all. There are certain situations that don’t fit neatly into the box, and the end of the Oklahoma State game was one of them.
First, let’s compare the Texas endgame to that of the OSU contest. In the former, West Virginia got the ball back with 2:34 to play, ran three plays, with the clock running down to 1:34. That’s absolutely fine to that point. However, the Mountaineers’ next three plays took more than a minute off the clock, and they didn’t get the next play off until just 24 seconds remained. A lack of urgency, as well as a substitution that caused the officials to hold the snap to allow the Longhorns to substitute, both contributed.
Of course, all turned out well. Texas somehow allowed Jennings to get behind the entire defense for the epic 33-yard touchdown grab, and the ensuing two-point conversion erased any discussion of time management.
However, just because something worked doesn’t make it right. Think of any number of bad throws that somehow wind up in a receiver’s hands, or of a crazy bounce that turns what should have been a turnover into a touchdown. Exhibit A on any WVU list would be Major Harris’ touchdown run against Penn State in 1988. Even though that turned into a TD, West Virginia didn’t run the wrong way on purpose to try to replicate the result.
Now, fast forward to Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers don’t have nearly as much time to work with, starting the drive with just 42 seconds to play. Will Grier is forced out of the pocket and has to run the ball on the first play, and he’s tackled in bounds. WVU again has two timeouts remaining, and if it takes one here the clock would have been stopped right around the 35-second mark. That doesn’t happen, though, so an additional 11 seconds tick off before the next snap at 0:24.
The next two plays result in two completions to Gary Jennings, and both are perfectly efficient, with first downs (and Jennings get out of bounds on the second) the result. However, at this point, there’s just 11 seconds remaining.
WVU maximizes that, and manages to squeeze off three more plays, including a 14-yard completion to David Sills for a first down at the OSU 14, where he alertly went to the ground to allow for a timeout to finally be called. That left just two seconds, and time for just one more play. The Cowboys mug Sills throughout his route, and knock the pass down.
But what if WVU had used its other timeout after the first play of the drive? Given its efficiency, and the distance to the goal line, it likely could have gotten two more shots at the end zone, rather than being limited to just one. Sills also might have been able to run after his final catch, and although he wouldn’t have scored, he could have put WVU closer to the goal line, and brought the threat of a run back into play.
Again, there’s full acknowledgement that this can be looked at as second guessing. Had the officials called holding or pass interference on the final play, WVU might have gotten another shot and won it. There’s also no guarantee that the additional play(s) would have been successful. OSU might have picked the next one off, gotten a sack or batted passes down again. But the one sure thing with eating the timeout is that West Virginia was never going to score on second or third down after the Sills completion, because it never got the chance to run those plays.