Go for 2 or play for OT? How coaches make that call
By RALPH D. RUSSO
Oct. 18, 2017
Faced with the decision to kick an extra point to tie or go for two and the lead late in games last weekend, two college football coaches did not hesitate to basically put it all one play instead of trying to get to overtime.
Aggressive? Sure. Calculated? Absolutely. Risky? No way.
Long before a coach makes that critical call he has assessed everything from his players to his playbook. There is nothing spur of the moment about the decision. In fact, it could have been made in a meeting room days before. So while it might have looked as if Utah and Eastern Michigan gambled and lost when their 2-point plays failed, the coaches who made those calls say the percentages were on their side.
"It would have been a gamble to kick the extra point," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team failed to convert with 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter and lost 28-27 at Southern California last Saturday night.
A few hours earlier in the day, Eastern Michigan was in almost the exact same situation, having scored a touchdown with 49 seconds left at Army to make it 28-27. EMU's running play for 2 was stopped less than a yard from the goal line.
Eagles coach Chris Creighton said when he meets with his coordinators on Thursdays one of the situations they discuss is whether they will be playing for overtime or trying to win the game in regulation if they face the scenario they did against Army.
Creighton's approach is conventional. If Eastern Michigan is facing a clearly superior opponent — he used Alabama as an example — the Eagles are going to play for the regulation win.
If Eastern Michigan has the advantage in talent, depth and home field, Creighton and his staff will enter the game expecting to extend it if given the chance.
"And our third option is we got to wait and see," he said Tuesday. "We got to see how our O's playing. How our D's playing. How did we get there? Do we have momentum? Did they come back on us? Has it been tight? All those things are relevant."
Against Army the decision to try to win the game in regulation was made with about eight minutes remaining and the Black Knights' offense on the move, Creighton said.
At the point it was 21-all and Creighton knew that Army's methodical pace could leave Eastern Michigan with only one more possession.
Sure enough, Army scored with 5:06 remaining. The Knights' option offense had already gained more than 400 yards rushing and held the ball for more than 36 minutes. Eastern Michigan was not stopping Army.
"Our defensive coordinator, when we did have the ball on the last drive, came up to me and said, 'Hey, if we score go for two,'" Creighton said.
Whittingham was in a similar pickle at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"We knew we needed to be aggressive, that's obvious. You go play a team like USC on the road, we're like a 14-point underdog or whatever we were. So we knew there was going to have to be some element of risk that we needed to take to have a chance," Whittingham said.
Utah converted a fourth-and-short from deep in its own territory early in the game on the way to a 21-7 lead at half.
USC wiped out the deficit with touchdown drives of 98, 88 and 93 yards to go up 28-21 with 4:54 left in the fourth quarter. The Trojans' offense had already run 80 plays when Utah took what turned out to be its last possession.
Whittingham had a worn down defense, and adding to his problems, an offense that has struggled in the red zone all season. No Pac-12 team has converted a lower percentage of its drives inside the opponents' 20 into touchdowns than Utah at 47 percent. And college football overtime is essentially played in the red zone.
When the Utes last drive started the decision had already been made to go for two if they scored with less than a minute left in regulation.
Whittingham is also a believer in advanced analytics, which have helped him become more confident and decisive about his game-management decisions. Utah uses data provided by a company called Championship Analytics, Inc., to aid with game management. The data, Whittingham said, was in favor of going for two.
Creighton, who was once a play-caller, said sometimes the decision comes down to whether you think you have a good call.
"Knowing for sure what the defensive front and coverage is going to be so you just know you got a play," he said. "Or saying, 'Gosh, we've used our 2-point play already."
After a loss, coaches will review a game and question what they could have done to change the outcome. Whittingham said he has not once second-guessed that final decision.
"More convinced that we made the right decision the more I thought about it," he said.
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